The Struggle for the Working Class

Transposing emblem by Martha Corzo

One of the greatest extremes in Peru can be found in people’s standard of living.

We can arrive at this conclusion if we consider that many families in Lima, especially the immigrants from the highlands, live on an average of 1,000 soles (or less) a month (equivalent to less than $300), while, by contrast, there are also many families who spend that sum on a ticket for entertainment or other things as insignificant as that.

Here in Lima, when the rich neighborhoods had already been established, the poor people in the city and the new arrivals from the highlands built huts around them, moving onto land that already had owners. Frequently, these people were cheated by someone who was not the owner and sold them the land with false property titles, but, nonetheless, something like a belt was formed by these settlements. The homes themselves were very modest, generally shacks with dirt floors covered by mats, which is all you need since it does not rain in Lima.

These settlers had left their villages in the provinces, in some cases because of the poverty and in others to escape terrorism. At the beginning, these suburbs were called “barriadas” (shanty towns) and now we call them “pueblos jóvenes” (young towns). Although most of them are quite similar one stands out. It is called “Villa El Salvador.” The difference is that it did not develop in the form of an invasion, but was planned by a former president who wanted to give land to the poor. And, indeed, it has progressed greatly since its establishment and become a district. An industrial park has been built there, along with a housing resort, lawns and recreational areas. It is named the “Villa Panamericana” and was intended to host the athletes of the “Panamericano” (Pan-American games) that were held in Lima during July and August. And now, after the games, these facilities are used by the residents in this area.

In Lima there are tremendous extremes in two more areas: health and education. The people living in the “pueblos jóvenes” receive very poor health care, and most of them do not have access to good schools for their children, although many work very hard in the hope of seeing their children obtain a university degree.

In terms of health care, we can say that here the patient care for the poor is very bad. If a poor person needs help, the date of the appointment that is given to them is so far in the future that most of the time, when the day arrives, this patient has already recovered or has died. Besides, very frequently, hospital personnel are on strike due to their low salaries or, at other times, there is a lack of material in those institutions, and, on these occasions, the patients are denied care. In addition to the hospitals, there are also free medical clinics, but it is very difficult to receive care there because they are generally crowded. In some cases, there have even been situations where two women who were going to give birth had to share a bed. And if someone succeeds in receiving care, the cost of medicine in the pharmacy is so high that they cannot buy it. And very little of the medicine prescribed is sold in these pharmacies. Most of the time, a relative must go to one that is strategically placed very close to these medical centers and pay a more expensive price than normal to get the medicine.

In the past, there were two hospitals for workers, the “Hospital del Empleado” (Employee Hospital) and the “Hospital Obrero” (Workers’ Hospital), and care was good in both, although the former was a little better due to its higher resources. Then the government had the two hospitals merged, and care declined in the former because it had to share its resources with the latter.

However, the treatment there still remained acceptable. But a few years ago, a president “populista” (populist) stipulated that all the poor people of Lima should receive medical services there, no matter whether they worked or not or if they paid or not. Naturally, the number of people to be treated exceeded their capacity, so the quality of care fell.

The health care offered in Lima’s private clinics to people with economic resources differs greatly from the kind offered to the poor in the health centers. We have already seen how health care is offered (or denied) to the poor in our capital. By contrast, the people who can pay what is asked or who have health insurance can go to one of the various private clinics in Lima when an emergency occurs and receive at least satisfactory treatment.

If we talk about education, there are also extremes in this area. The upper classes receive an acceptable education, but the poor do not. This gap has been narrowing in some cases over the last few decades due to access to the internet. Parents and children of modest means may use it in the special “cabinas” (cabins) created for that purpose here and in the suburbs by paying a little money.

But poor people are often cheated by bad universities whose titles do not help them get a job. However, we can say that 10% or 20% of young people with a few resources manage to join the professional working class. Here too, globalization is making a difference, as now it is easier to study for a career or even obtain a graduate degree, virtually, or at least with classroom time only on weekends.

But the most extremes situation is found in the income earned by workers.

In Lima, Peru, many women are home workers. Most of them come from the villages to the capital in search of a better life, but few really get it because most of the time their salaries are too low.

Another group of workers whose income is extraordinarily low in Lima can be seen in the “wachimanes” (security guards). At present there are thousands of these employees here. Almost every great house must have one of them guarding the door. Most buildings have one, and, in the neighborhoods where the people are not so wealthy, they have one for each block. The reason is the increase in crime. In the beginning most of the men handling this task were soldiers of the Peruvian army, but now anybody, even people without formal training, may work as one.

In the apartments of buildings where middle age couples live, there is often a surplus of food, which is given to the wachimanes, who also receive electric appliances that are no longer used. If they are bachelors, as they frequently are, that is enough to solve their more urgent problems since, being well fed, their health is generally good.

Nonetheless, young professionals can earn a higher income if they know how to do construction work or make home repairs. The problem with these workers is that, even when they are skilled, as they generally are, construction workers are often paid the minimum wage and are unhappy because they have other expectations. Yet, they continue working due to the lack of other opportunities to get a better job and because they do not want to risk what they have, since at least it gives them a certain security, although it does not secure their future.

To close, it should be repeated that extremes are widespread in Peru. We find them in health care, education and, above all, income. It continues to be extremely difficult for the uneducated and educated working class to make a decent living. Nonetheless, we still hope for an improvement.

Martha Corzo