Monday, July 10, 2006

Fiscal realities...

My man Mark Reichelgauz (the guy in the photo), has come over to the house. Marko is a 16-year-old student at the Beis Aharon School here in Pink and has just finished with his weekly massage lessons and popped in to say hello. Marko and I both play guitar and so he likes to come over from time to time and play my old Da Villa which is about twice as old as Marko. The Jewish Boarding School is picking up the cost of his training and also sends him to music school as well. Yad Yisroel is, as you can tell by the ad, also one of my main sponsors and they do a really good job of looking after the local community and especially their charges. The school is on vacation but Mark lives in Pinsk so he came by to visit on his way home from his summer lessons.

Mark’s big problem today was that had to quit a summer job digging foundations for an asphalt roadway. He had been working there for about a month and a half, and finally decided he was fed up with the whole thing and called today saying that he quit. The reason he gave his boss was that he simply was not making enough money anymore because of the way the job was set up and so, because of this and also because of the really hot weather, he had decided to quit and enjoy the rest of his summer without money.

Being a father sort of makes you look to either the practical side of things or at least for lessons in morality and my first thought was to scold Mark for quitting a job. No good can come of this and for sure you don’t want them to label you a prima donna. The best thing for you is to keep the job even if it is a little rough. He told me that I really didn’t understand and began to explain the situation.

In the beginning, the job called for pay of 3000 rubles for each square meter dug by the five man digging team. In a day, they could maybe get through 25 meters, so the 75,000 rubles was divided amongst the five diggers and each man would bring home about 15,000 rubles, about $7. This was for digging from 8am to five pm with an hour for lunch, and you know, smoking breaks. All the workers were paid the same.

But the problem came when the boss of the crew started to bring in more workers to make the job go by faster. At first the now six-man group could make 30 meters a day, so the money was the at least the same for each worker. But then the boss received pressure from his bosses that they needed to make better time and so they then took on a seventh and an eight worker. But unfortunately for Mark, these guys were straight up street alcoholics and so the work did not keep up with the extended man power and Mark found himself making only about 10,000 rubles, a little less than $5. So today he called his boss and told him enough was enough; a man has his limits and his time must be worth something.

Mark’s story got me to thinking about my own fiscal realities. I am ok with my current position and like the work that I am doing, but like any job, it is not without its problems and I never really feel as though my situation is very solid, regardless of what work I do. I started to write down what Mark was telling me and he asked me what I was doing. I told him I had been seriously thinking of writing something about this Belarusian money/work situation since yesterday when I went out to the farm to try and keep things in order and had the chance to run into Sasha, one of our neighbors.

Sasha is lifetime villager but unlike all of the other mature men, he is absolutely not a drunk. Shasha is married to Lena and they have… wait, let me count…five kids now, all of them strapping, healthy and good looking. Sasha is about thirty five, slim and good looking and absolutely skilled in the all of the ways of Belarusian village life. But unfortunately Sasha must work at least nine months a year in Moscow in order to make enough money to provide for his family. There simply isn’t enough to be made working for the local KolHoz because Sahsa, for all of his knowledge and talent, lacks any formal degree so the $250 or $300 “executive” jobs are not available to him.

I asked him how Moscow was and he told me all was normal. He has been working on either building or remodeling houses. He can’t work as an independent because he can’t get a license, so he works for what bosses he can find. He is very skilled and works quickly so he does get a lot of work but unfortunately, the work he finds does not always pay what it should and he has gotten short changed by several bosses.

“When you start out, you can make some money. It is not like $100 a day or anything like that, but maybe you can find fifty. But then the boss starts to play games. He says ‘I am sorry, we are a little short this month, but I will make it up to you later.’ And you can’t do anything because he is the boss and if you play with him, nobody will hire you. The mafia is also a problem. They get involved anywhere where people are making money and you have to start to either pay for your work or your boss has to pay to keep working. Then your number gets less and less and you have to work longer and longer hours. I got tired of one boss and tried to work for another but then even that one went sour after about six weeks. It is all dirty.

“All of our days are maybe 12 hours or so in order to make better time, from 8 to 8 every day. But in the end you never get paid for these extra hours. I averaged for this trip maybe $35 a day; my best day was maybe $60 and some others I couldn’t work. Plus of course I had to pay for my room and food and transportation back and forth. But its ok, we are getting by.”

Wouldn’t it be better to work in Minsk?

“Of course it would be better, but you need to have work there. They don’t have the corruption in Minsk like they do in Moscow, but they also do not have the work.”

What about all of the building they are doing in Achova, just right down the road?

“These guys don’t make any money. I do better with what I am doing. Sure it would be better to be able to live and work in the same place. But we have to do what we have to do.”


Alona is Egr’s (pronounced with a long “E”, a short “R” and very soft “G”) mother and is also right now working in Moscow. Egr is one of my English students. I really like Baba Nina, Egr’s grandmother because she has always been one of the more friendly people to me here. Alona is divorced from Egr’s father, who lives just across the square from our house, and though their relationship is hot and cold, all agree that Egr’s best situation is to live in Nina’s house. Nina basically takes care of him, pays for his clothes, schoolbooks and toys out of her pocket and supplies both the love and the discipline.

A couple of weeks ago Egr told me that he would be suspending his English lessons for a while because he was on his way to Moscow to stay with his mother for the summer vacation. This was ok for me, but when the fateful day to leave had come and gone and Egr was still around (though had managed still to miss his lesson), I got curious as to what was going on. Alona was late in coming from Moscow because the gift she had bought for Egr, a combination Karaoke/DVD player had a problem and she needed to have it fixed first.

After she finally did arrive, it turned out that she would stay with Nina for a couple of weeks before going back with Egr. But during these weeks though, after hearing about Alona’s living situation in Moscow, both Nina and Egr’s father decided to seriously protest Egr’s going back to Moscow with Alona, even going so far as threatening court. Alona is living in a shared one room apartment with four other women and as all of them will do as they like, it is very hard to get a decent night’s sleep. When Alona cried at how much she missed her 10-year-old, neither Nina or Egr’s father was swayed and refused to give their signatures allowing for Egr to receive his permit to leave the country.

Alona’s money fluctuates wildly from month to month depending on how business goes at the street clothing kiosk she works at. During her 12 hour days, she hawks shoes or ladies dresses to people who might take a fancy to her wares while heading from one place to another. Her best month she told me was when she made $700, but on the average she pulls in between $200 and $300.

"I had problems after that month where I made $700. Some people came and started asking questions. There are a lot of problems with people who play with your money and you know, you can't go to the police about it. After that month they changed the deal with me and I couldn't make that much money any more.

“Of course I would rather live here and be able to see my son every day, but what can I do? We need the money. But I know that Egr has a good home here and that it is a real home. But I simply have no such situation that I can be with him now. I am alone. I have no family but for Egr. His father has his money but I must have mine. We are not together and his money goes to his family and so I must help to pay for Egr and to help Nina when I can.

“That karaoke machine cost $200 but I knew this was something that Egr really wanted. So I wanted to show him that I care and that I am making money to help him live. I could have more money but everything is very corrupt there and the Mafia is everywhere. It is not like here I think. Everyone says that here is better and that there is not so much corruption. But then there is not the sort of money here either so I suppose that counts too.

“But if I would work here in Pinsk, I would not have the same sorts of chances that I have in Moscow, so I have to go where the money is. Yes, this situation is very hard on me because I am very lonely for my Egr, but what can I do. Maybe in the future, should there be more money or some opportunity to finance something here, I might be able to come back and live here again. Or maybe something good will happen there in Moscow and I might be able to have a better home there. But for now, I have to do what I have to do.

“I have always worked with my hands and have always helped. When I was girl, from the time I was even 13 years old I didn’t go to the dances or to parties but stayed and helped with the work. This was ok for me, this was what needed to be done. And I am still young. I am only 28 years old. I still have some life ahead of me. You never know. Something good could still happen.”

I wished her luck and happiness on her road and smiled when she thanked me for teaching Egr English. I thanked her for the compliment but admitted that really it was a lot more about how smart he is and how hard he works than it is about any teaching technique. She went to her pocket and tried to pay me for a month of his lessons- two one-hour lessons a week for about a dollar an hour, but I told her that Nina had already paid for this month by agreeing to make me a meter-and-a-half long pillow for me.

“Oh, she made that for you!” exclaimed Alona “She told me she was making a long pillow. Why did you want such a thing?”

“I don’t know really. It was just something that popped into my mind from a long time ago when I lived in America. I knew that she made pillows and sells them at the markets so I thought I would ask if she could make me one. Maybe you should stay and help her I the pillow business?”

“I would,” she said, “but there is not enough money in it.”


When Mark got up to leave he asked me if I was really going to print his story and his picture. I told him I would and he seemed happy about it.

“Are they really going to read about me in America?”

“America and 74 other countries.”

“That’s cool. All the girls in America are going to see my picture. Maybe I will get a chance to go to Hollywood. That would be the best sort of job, I think.”

“I think the best job you can have is one you study for in school. If I were you, I would get the best grades I could and then go to the university in Israel. The rabbi’s paying for everything; use your chance and find one of those 9-5 office jobs with a secretary and air conditioning and a computer on your desk that pays $25,000 a year.”

“Is that 25,000 Russian rubles for a month?” He raised his eyebrows. This would be about $930.

“No, I said dollars a year. That is about what they say the average American worker receives. This is about $2000 a month.”

“$25,000 dollars a year? Psshhh! That’s not bad.”

“No, its good work if you can get it.”

More soon...