Saturday, April 5, 2014

Cambodian Staff

My experience with staff has so far been limited to help in the house and the workers on the rubber plantation. The latter usually don’t pose a problem. Once a year they want a raise, which we had been able to give them every year.  This year they have been awfully quiet about this subject as a large plantation nearby laid off 3,000 workers. Their trees had reached the non-productive stage and were cut down. Until the new saplings produce it will be six to seven years.  Although there are a lot of new plantations in other provinces, most notably in Kompong Thom, Preah Vihear, and Rattanakiri, most of them don’t produce yet, and most people don’t really want to relocate. So they seem to be happy to have a job at all.

The Prime Minister once exhorted workers not to go abroad to find work but stay here. The rubber plantations needed all the hands they could get. This sure is a bit out of touch with reality.  Most wages in Thailand, Korea, and Malaysia are usually around $500 a month whereas on a plantation here they make about $150.

My caretaker at the house who had been with me for 4 years turned out to be a gambler. We never found out until one day the GPS unit on my boat went missing. He said he didn’t notice it initially; only when he hosed it down one day did he see it was gone. We were abroad at that time but he had our kids’ phone numbers. He did not find it necessary to call them. Neither did he call the police which would have been the normal thing even in Cambodia. We are well-known in our little town, and the mayor of the village, or the chief of Sangkat would have ordered an investigation. The whole thing sounded really fishy to us. We decided to let him go. He was a pretty good worker and could do almost everything and sometimes had really good ideas. But he tended to lose things, e. g. tools, break them or generally did not take care of anything. It is really frustrating when you have to tell him all the time what needs to be done.

When he was gone, a few people from the nearby villages showed up and asked about him. He owed them money; $40 here, $50 there. He also played cards, bet on all kinds of things, and as one can imagine, he usually lost. So it probably is not a stretch to believe that he used the GPS unit to guarantee some of his gambling debts. The best thing about this is that only the head unit without the transducer was taken. The cables, the mount was still there. It would have been sort of hard to dismantle all this and would have required some expert knowledge. He clearly didn’t have this. Still, I was left with damage worth $600. You can’t get these things easily in Cambodia so I have them shipped in from the U.S.

The next caretaker I hired seemed decent enough. He worked as guard at the power plant nearby and wanted to have an easier job. He was recommended by an acquaintance of ours, actually he was his son-in-law. So next thing we know is that he didn’t show up but his aunt did to look after things. Of course, she wouldn’t be any help launching my boat – which is a job for two at my place. The guy did occasionally show up at night to sleep there but he had a wife and kid so most nights, especially when we were not there, he wouldn’t be at the house altogether. We needed to let him go after two weeks – all without hard feelings.
Then we had an elderly couple who came by after we had the previous guy ask around. They looked ok and seemed to need a job pretty badly. They said only two people. When they started work, all of a sudden there were three. They took care of their granddaughter.  Well, we were in need of someone to look after the house in our absence so we let this slide. It worked out ok for a while. When we started the hotel we thought we could use the wife to help out as maid. She liked the job and the different surroundings so she started working there full-time. Now the real nature of the husband came to the fore. He was and is a lush. One time I even had to climb over the wall because he was drunk and fast asleep and didn’t hear my honking or shouting. He promised it wouldn’t happen again. Of course, alcoholics can’t keep a promise. Sure enough, next time we were gone for a couple days, he was not there when we got back. He was out ‘buying food’. We needed to let him go. What good is a caretaker for if he doesn’t take care things?

I described the work ethics of contractors in my previous post. As for the hotel staff I thought it would be fairly easy to find people willing and ready to work, given that there still are many young people without job. Not so. We needed staff with a basic knowledge of English, and preferably some experience in the hotel/restaurant business. To my surprise there weren’t many around in Sihanoukville it seems. We hung out a ‘for hire’ sign. The bartender was the first we hired, a young girl barely 20 years old but with a thorough knowledge of cocktails. The bartender knew a woman who could cook some Western food, so she was put on the payroll next. In short order we were nevertheless able to fill our available jobs, including the front office manager who really did a good job of selling himself.

I can’t really complain about the hotel staff except for the bartender. One day she simply didn’t show up and didn’t call either. The cook lives next to her so she asked would she come in this afternoon. Ah, she was feeling sick and would come a little later. Well, again she didn’t call or anything. She simply didn’t show up. But she was there the next day. This happened twice and we were getting ready to fire her when she resigned on her own, apologizing, and saying she would just like to work as a temp to fill in when the other staff had their day off. She was also afraid ghosts in the evening – a pretty common phenomenon among Khmer people. So far our hotel is pretty quiet in the evenings as we don’t serve dinner, and the guests go out to eat and usually don’t come back until 9 pm or later.  Since that change we haven’t had a problem.
The front office manager is a dud. He is still working for us so I won’t go into any details here.  

The main problem I found with Cambodian staff is their general lack of knowledge and their obvious  inability to think logically. Of course, these are all unskilled laborers with little schooling. Some are even completely illiterate. I really can’t hold it against them, but it is kind of frustrating when running a business. I can only imagine what factories with hundreds of workers go through. But then, if it weren’t like this from where would the West get their cheap clothes – H&M, Walmart, etc., come to mind. Basically, the West is just exploiting countries like Cambodia to meet their growth and profit goals. All the nice words about labor standards and minimum wage are merely lip service to appease those pesky human rights proponents. Adidas, H&M apparently didn’t pay attention to the minimum wage issue until the strikes turned violent and left one dead recently.

To be honest, the tourist and hotel business basically falls into the same category. Where else can you offer rooms for $15 or $20 a night if not in countries like Cambodia where people make $120 a month. I would gladly pay higher wages if the market would allow it. I would have to raise room rates but would price myself out of the market with that. Although there are only a handful of hotels in the same category in town,  I am sure they would have enough capacity to absorb my guests without a problem.  Now why can I survive, and hopefully I will? The key to success is offering a different standard from what’s available already.  But that is a subject for another post.

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