Monday, February 27, 2012

Workin' for a Livin’

One of the most common complaints I hear when speaking to Armenians is that there are no jobs here.  This leads to numerous problems, ranging from the basic worry about the ability to feed one’s family to the impact it has on discouraging hope for the future (why study when there are no jobs anyway?).  

Among other issues facing society here (corruption, economic inequality, gender inequality), the high rate of emigration is one of the largest and one that the government has expressed concern about since this is one of few countries with a shrinking population.  While there is permanent emigration for a variety of reasons other than job opportunities, there is also a lot of “temporary” emigration for people seeking work. In addition to the general lack of credibility in government statistics, one specific reason for the disparity in census figures (officially 3.4 million people live in Armenia; some estimates put the figure as low as 2.5 million) is that migrant workers are usually included in the population while they are out of the country working.  It doesn’t matter if the person is gone for a part of the year or has been gone for decades – he (and they are overwhelmingly male) may still be counted.

Pretty much every family I have met has a father, son or brother (or more than one) working in Russia.  They normally send part of their wages back to support the families and these “remittances” are included in the official statistics of Armenia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a measure that normally would only include the value of what is produced inside a country.  For the first ten months of 2011, remittances accounted for 13% of Armenia’s GDP, illustrating to what extent breadwinner’s are living abroad (see article). The proportion of GDP represented by remittances, by the way, includes only those cleared through the central bank.  Some people mail the money directly to their families (leading to thriving currency exchange businesses all over the country) so that figure is likely substantially understated.

In illustration of the social impact of the "temporary" emigration, there is a village where 98% of the men are away in Russia, forcing women to take on traditionally male functions. As I wrote previously, I expect this phenomenon to fuel a societal change in gender roles, but that can't happen if there aren't jobs to fill with women or men.  But I digress.

As with census figures, unemployment figures are highly suspect.  The government recently announced that unemployment fell in 2011 compared to 2010 (6.4% compared to 7.0%).  While those are rates that the US would welcome these days, the rates have a couple of footnotes.  Unlike the International Labor Organization, Armenia only includes those registered at the State Unemployment Agency as opposed to polling households.  And anyone who has cultivatable land (most people in villages) is not considered unemployed (I guess one could make a case for subsistence farming being a profession…..).  Following the more standard international practices, the unemployment rate can be estimated between 19 and 27%.  In Gyumri, the official unemployment rate is about 25% but I have heard estimates as high as 70%.

Some people who do find work are significantly overqualified for the jobs they take but they have no choice (I have heard of doctors working as drivers for expatriates).  One young man I know has a university degree from a technical university.  He looked for a job for more than a year and eventually gave up on finding one in his field of specialty.  He started looking for anything where he could qualify but even then it was difficult. He applied to work in a store where the only advertised qualification was computer knowledge, which he has.  When he did not get the job he asked why and was told that they are really looking for a woman to hire – since they need someone to make coffee for everyone else.  He eventually got a job working at a dye vat in a tee shirt factory.  As with most everything else, the factory closed at the end of December for the New Year holiday, but due to lack of orders it did not reopen until late February.

Employment is the main reason I hear for nostalgia for Soviet times.  “Everyone had a job!” I am told repeatedly.  I picture people as happy as the ones in this video.  Somehow I doubt that is an accurate picture, but economic hardship can play tricks on one’s memory.

But these sentiments are sometimes inconsistent with what I see and hear.  There was a job fair in Gyumri a few months ago where about 40 companies had booths to showcase their companies and to talk about jobs that they have available.  I was curious to go, with images in my mind of job fairs in the US with thousands of people lined up to get in. While I was at this one, however, the attendees were far outnumbered by those presenting.  A fellow volunteer asked an unemployed man he knows about whether he had gone to the fair and was told “no”.  It seems that he didn’t believe there would be anything there that he would be good for so he didn't think it was worthwhile.

In contrast, at my last job in New York I had a position to fill in 2009 – deep into the economic crisis.  I received dozens of resumes (and phone calls even though my number was not advertised) from people who did not have the basic requirements advertised for the job but who were hoping for at least a chance for a job.  The fact that there was a decent;y-paying job (even at a very troubled company) set off a minor frenzy.

The Gyumri job fair made me realize that some people treat a job search like they would online dating – if it doesn’t meet all of my requirements, I won’t even look at it.  Similarly, as I walk around, I see signs posted in the windows of shops and cafes advertising jobs that are available.  But (and, to be fair, the same exists in the US) some people don’t want jobs that are “beneath” them. 

In discussing this phenomenon with others, a fellow volunteer pointed out that, in Armenia, there is no shame in unemployment because it is so prevalent.  And while many in the US are fearful of losing their homes if there is no salary coming in, most people here own their homes outright so the personal economics are completely different.  

As a result of this, the programs we try to run here related to job skills have mixed success.  The discouragement factor I mention above is one thing to contend with while I heard of a donor organization discouraging job skill training programs because they could contribute to permanent emigration and “brain drain”.

And the Soviet mindset remains as a challenge.  In my recent  Business English class that I teach, we spoke about the need for society to plan for the types of jobs that will be needed in the future by making sure that enough people are qualified for them when they are needed.  I asked the class to suggest areas that Armenia should focus on given current trends.  The only answer I got is that the government needs to make sure that people have places to work.  

But then I read coverage of the presidential campaigning in the US.  And the answers seem eerily similar..... 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Life of Challenges

An organization with which I work is looking into a project that would make their building accessible to people with physical disabilities, making me reflect again on how difficult it is for the disabled in Armenia.

Walking in Gyumri is enough of a challenge without contending with a disability.  Many streets are unpaved. Sidewalks don’t exist for long stretches or may be blocked by rubble from damaged buildings.  Where there are clear sidewalks, they can be at different heights in front of different buildings necessitating steps up or down as you walk along.  Some curbs that do exist are more than a foot above the street.  During the winter, you have to be particularly careful since there is no standard for whether to clear the sidewalk in front of your home or business so it is often left until it melts (particularly since there are so many vacant buildings).  This winter, snow has been on the ground since November, has solidified to ice in many places and will remain on the ground until at least April.  A total of about a foot arrived this week after four solid days of snowfall.  

All over Armenia, cars seem to have right of way no matter what.  Whether or not this is codified by law I don’t know but since everyone yields the right of way it may as well be.  There are intersections with walk signals but where a street feeding into the intersection retains a green light for cars to pass.  Cars regularly pass one another on blind hills and you can be trapped in a crosswalk with a car speeding toward you.  I have seen cars drive on sidewalks or streets that are nominally for pedestrians only, with drivers expecting people to get out of their way. 

Transportation options are virtually non-existent for the disabled.  Getting on and off marshutnis and buses usually requires you to climb over or past other passengers and the average seat (if you can get one) is not wide enough for the average person.  Subway stations in Yerevan have steep steps into the stations and escalators down to the platforms.  The city of Yerevan recently purchased a large number of buses with the intent of phasing out marshutnis for intra-city transport – but none of them are handicap accessible. Oops.

I am not aware of any elevators in Gyumri.  During the earthquake, virtually all tall buildings collapsed and I have seen only one or two that are higher than five stories.  Elevators I have been in while in Yerevan are barely wider than I am.  There are ramps up to certain areas and buildings (into some subway stations, up to church entrances) but they are usually too steep to be safely used with a wheelchair and there is no access from the street to the beginning of the ramp anyway.  Once inside a building, doorways tend to be narrow, are inconsistent as to whether they open in or out, and most that I have seen have a lip that you need to step over to cross the threshold.
There was a protest recently (see article) that highlighted that access for the disabled throughout Yerevan was very poor.  As I have written previously, Yerevan is far more developed than the rest of the country so what little is there is far more than in the outer regions of the country.  Gyumri's recently opened city hall has no ramps for access to the building.

A lot of this is because Armenians seem to prefer not to think about the disabled in the population.  By the official count, about 6% of the population is disabled but I can count on one hand how many physically disabled people I have seen in Gyumri. One man I do see often is a double amputee.  He sits in a wheelchair in his garage and usually one of the neighboring men is playing Nardi (similar to backgammon) with him.  The rutted dirt road that runs past his house leads to a poorly paved cobblestone street.  The only vehicles I see near his house are small Lada sedans and his house is run down, making it unlikely that his family owns a vehicle he could ride in comfortably.  It makes me wonder when he last left his house. 

Although Armenia no longer has “orphanages”, there are homes for children with no parents or whom the parents cannot take care of.  Some of those children are placed there because of the stigma associated with disabilities while others are simply kept indoors and out of sight.  Shame can overwhelm the need for good parenting.  There are organizations that deal specifically with these children (such as Centaur, a hippotherapy center) but it is in danger of closing for lack of funding (see article here).

Similar to transportation issues, the problem of unemployment is compounded by a disability (see article – that happens to have the same photo as the one linked above…).  Some of the larger corporations here have programs aimed at non-discrimination, but with unemployment estimated as high at 70% in some areas, it seems unlikely to me that any such program with respect to small businesses would succeed.

This all makes the desire to make the services offered in my office even more admirable.  The problem is that when it was built out to be an office space about seven years ago, this was not taken into consideration.  The cost to renovate it again, however, would be more than a new building would likely be.   

And those who need it would have no way to get there in the first place…..