Archives for category: equality

I am still battling with jet-lag and catching up on the sleep that grad school has deprived me of for the past 5 months. It’s good to be home. Good-ish. After dealing with reading depressing news about Italy’s imminent implosion for months, now I get to be immersed in national hysteria 24/7. Awesome!

The other day some CEO from a big supermarket chain was on TV saying how sales in supermarkets have gone down by 6% from last year, marking the worst decline in 50 years (really? I did not know our nonexistent supermarkets collected statistics back in the 1960). In particular, sales of red meat have gone down while sales of eggs and beans have gone up, or so he claimed, suggesting that either Italy is on the cusp of a vegetarian revolution or Italians are buckling up for a very lean Christmas. His voice adds to the chorus line of customers in taped in shops while lamenting the pitiful state of the nation, entrepreneurs whining that the government is not doing enough, our trade unions that are living in some Dickensian parallel industrial universe when our factories are all shutting down by the minute, homeowners impoverished by having to pay 150 euros in yearly property taxes on their first house (the horror!) and on top of all, our beloved politicians from the left and right doing what they do best: crying “Social Butchery” (Italian for “We don’t know what to do or say and would rather not do anything about this”) from the travelling shit show that is the Italian Parliament.

It appears to me that Italians firmly believe that if we are deep in the shit it is either none’s fault or someone else’s fault. Some enlightened citizens have been all too quick to blame the political class for the mess we’re in, as if those got where they are by self-appointment. None seems to have voted for these politicians (although, truth be told, we actually did not pick candidates but had to vote for a list in the last election thanks to our new electoral law, called ‘the pigsty‘ by the same MP that sponsored it). Some other enlightened citizens like to say Berlusconi is the cause of all of this, and while I tend to agree to some extent, I cannot ignore that Mr B. is the toxic by-product of our dis-functional politics (this in and of itself could be the subject of a longer post, some background). I am also not deluded enough to think that if our left-wing politicians could not win an election and keep a government together for more than 15 months when the alternative was a philandering clown marred in sexual and corruption scandals, it must be that they are also not very capable. Everyone seems to agree, however, that the Euro must be the cause of all this, to which I like to point out that if we still had our own currency it would probably be worth less than toilet paper right now. In fact, we had a major speculative crisis in 1992. Let me fish out some news article from those days (11/09/1992):

Global recession apart, Italy has two major problems: a massive public debt (much higher than that allowed by the Maastricht treaty) and uncompetitive labour costs. Source: here

It seems that twenty years have passed and nothing has changed. Our political class supposedly went through some major regeneration (on paper) but still nothing has changed.

I was slightly irked by all of this. It seems that a large portion of the Italian population is engaging in a national competition to stick their head into the sand while also waxing lyrical about how someone else is the cause of their misfortune. If this crisis has done anything is to hold a mirror to our faces and revealed us for what we have become: a nation that is morally and financially bankrupt.

To have a proof that we are morally bankrupt, it is enough to watch this video shot the day after some model citizens torched a whole Roma camp, after a rumor (later revealed to be false) was spread that a local teenager was raped by two Roma men. Pogrom,  Italian style. Condemnation flew in from all sides (minus those scumbags that sit on the right-hand side of our Parliament and their sycophants) and this was archived as an anomalous episode. Until a couple of days later a neo-nazi shot two Senegalese street vendors dead in Florence. Clearly we seem to have found that someone else who is the cause for our problems.

It seems to me that we have become a society where none is ever at fault for things that go wrong, none is ever responsible, none ever wants to pick up the tab for fixing things, because our country is, in the end, not ours: it is some bottomless pit we can keep taking without putting things in. Suffice to say that Italy has the highest tax evasion rate in all of Western Europe, after Greece (YAY for Greece, for not making us look bad!):

Tax fraud is estimated to equal more than 20 percent of Italy’s annual economic output. From more than 41 million tax returns filed in 2010, fewer than 1 percent of Italians reported income greater than $135,000 (Washington Post)

According to the book “Soldi Rubati” taxes have gone up by 12.5 % in the past 30 years. If everyone paid taxes and we could cut payroll taxes, each salaried worker would get 275 euros per month (3300 euros in a year approx). Meanwhile:

There are 200,000 Italians who own luxury cars, but they’re telling the taxman that they have an annual income of between €20,000 and €50,000. One Italian claimed to have an income of €500 a year, but managed to run five Ferraris (source)

So where am I going with this? This debt crisis is not only a problem of economics and fiscal rigor, but a chance to turn ourselves around. We are either at the lowest point but looking up, or we are on an irreversible path towards global irrelevance and moral and financial impoverishment. Italian debt exploded in the 80s partly because of high global interest rates because of the various oil and global economic crises, partly because our political machine kept banking on macroeconomic tricks (currency devaluations etc…) to keep us going and beautify our deficit problems without having to come up with political solutions (for a more in-depth analysis, you can read here).

This crisis can be our way out of this vicious circle. If we got everyone to pay taxes (and apparently they have a game plan to do this) we might have a GDP that is 20% higher.  There is clearly a way out. Now that we are done with the economic austerity, we need moral austerity. The economic and moral case is clear and the solutions are all there, all it takes is responsible politics.

(Bonus track: advert on tax evasion currently running on national TV. Hint if you do not speak Italian: it shows different kind of animal/plant parasites and ends with a social parasite.)

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Pyongyang’s Pizza Connection

The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il apparently is so fond of pizza that he decided, in his vast magnanimity, to ensure that the North Korean populace could also enjoy the privilege of having a pizza while in Pyongyang. He thus provided for the establishment of not one but two pizza restaurants in Pyongyang. We visited one and we learned that once a year two Italian chefs are flown in for refresher training for the staff. The restaurant we visited had a totally legitimate Italian feel with limoncello bottles for sale at 17 US$ and a margherita around 5 US$. I worked out that in comparison to the purchasing power of local salaries, a pizza and a beer cost the equivalent of 30 or 40 US$ in terms of European prices, so pizza is pretty much a luxury (shocker for a country with chronic food shortages), more or less like a sushi dinner in a fancy place is in Europe.

One of the guides asked about my opinion about the unfolding fiscal melt-down in Italy. I had caught the news on the BBC the night before so I explained the various measures that my beloved government has been taking to avert fiscal implosion. Leaving aside the slightly disconcerting fact that news of the Italian debt crisis had reached North Korea basically in real time, I will never forget the worried looks of our guide who, while living in the second happiest country in the world (according to Korean sources), seemed genuinely preoccupied with the prosperity of Italy and genuinely wished my country a speedy recovery from insolvency.

Revolutionary Art

Out of body experience. Feat. The Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung
As instructed by our travel company, we wore our best clothes for the visit to the Mausoleum where the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung lies in state in Pyongyang. The dress code requires a shirt, tie and smart-ish shoes for the gents and a long skirts for the ladies. I had to purchase a shirt in China before leaving for the DPRK, which has now become my Kim Il Sung shirt. We were slightly disappointed to find out that the rigid rules did not seem to apply to two Russian tourists who showed up in their blue batik shirts and sandals. The horror, the horror. When we pointed out the fashion faux pas, our guide shrugged and mumbled something along the lines of ‘Russians, they are like that’.

You leave cameras and all other belongings at the cloak room of the mausoleum, before walking the one kilometre that separates you from the glass coffin of the Father of Our Nation, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Like tin soldiers we march with other visitors, mostly Koreans brought in by their collective farms and factories to pay tribute to the Father of Our Nation, the Great Leader, Comrade Kim il Sung. We enter a big room with a marble (or is it plaster?) larger-than-life statue of the Great Leader, Sun and Father of Our Nation, Comrade Kim Il Sung against a pink and sky-blue background (recreating sunset, we gathered). The faux-plaster/faux-marble statue is lit with a light coming from above and a celestial sound is spat out by the speakers in the room. As told, we march in groups of four, get to a line marked on the floor, where we bow in front of the statue of the Great Leader etc. etc. Kim Il Sung. Thus we proceeded towards the Hall of Lamentation, where we are handed Sony MP3 players (made by the Imperialist Swines in Japan) whereby we can hear the mourning sounds (translated in English) of crowds of Korean lamenting the death of the Leader Maximo. The Koreans are luckier than us because they get a live rendition of the sorrows of the Korean people, courtesy of one of the guides of the mausoleum with indefatigable performance skills (As an aside, imagine having a business card that reads “So and So, Live Performer at the Hall of Lamentations of the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum. Just a thought for your next high school reunion). We are then showed a big collection of honours and awards received by Our Great Leader Father of the … you get the idea Kim Il Sung. These include, inter alia, certificates of honorary citizenships from Italy, France, Belgium and various other Western nations. We learn that those have been bestowed in acknowledgment of the Great Leader’s contribution to modern tought through his Juche idea (in case you haven’t yet, you can educate yourself about Juche here).

Finally we reach the Sancta Sanctorum of the Mausoleum. We pass a door that is like a mini car wash booth, where the soles of our shoes are brushed and we are sprayed some air (containing disinfectant? or perhaps it is communist holy water from Leningrad?). Ahead of us, lies the mummified body of Our Great Leader, perfectly preserved in a glass coffin. We march in rows of four, like little toy soldiers, in what is a spectacle of choreographed mourning. After forty minutes of interminable corridors, halls of lamentations, celestial visions of plaster statues the propaganda machine starts to work its magic. As we bow four times (one time for each of the sides of the coffin), I am only one step away from thinking to myself  “Thank you Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung, Sun of Our Nation. Thank you for being the  Liberator and Father of the Second-Happiest Country in the World. Our Glorious Nation. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”

Outside the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum, Pyongyang

Customs of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea

Upon going back to my seat after lunch on the Pyongyang-Beijing train I found that my fellow travellers had indulged in a weird sort of packed lunch which included clams, bananas and pumpkin seeds. Pretending to find the crustacean lunch explosion and the remains thereof absolutely in tune with my expectations of what a Chinese packed lunch on a train might entail, I sat on my seat while filling the exit card and the custom declaration form of the DPRK.

I prepared myself for the two hours it would take to complete formalities. First an officer came, took all of our passports and walked away. As he left, I realised that my passport was now entrusted in the tender loving care of Korean authorities, much like it had been for most of my time in Korea. I had become again member of the international brotherhood and sisterhood of people whose passports are taken away from them and who are thus at the mercy of their sponsors or guardians such as minors and domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

A second official came and our compartment began the hectic process of luggage inspection that had already caused considerable chaos all over our carriage. The process started shortly after the officer  expressed some mild disgust at the manner with which the lunch leftovers had taken over most of the space on the table where the paperwork would have to take place. Perhaps hoping to get over the painful bit first the officer started with me. I opened both of my bags for the officer to have a look while also fishing out the electronic items I had declared on my form. The officer took my camera and tried to place it in the narrow empty space between the gaping carcasses of clams and the carpet of spat-out pumpkin seeds and banana peals. Then he proceeded to unwrap my phone which had been sealed in a paper envelope, stamped across the seal and wrapped in tape before being entrusted to my guide upon arrival at Pyongyang airport. Upon seeing a keyboard-less mobile not bigger than 5×7 cm the officer made a perplexed face and called a colleague over to show how Sony had managed to produce a Lego toy that can handle internet browsing and international roaming.

After that, the other passengers went through their customs checks. The numerous suitcases of the two Chinese business men were opened while the rest of us watched the process for its sheer entertainment value (incidentally, based on a nationally-representative sample of two people, I have decided that all Chinese traders are messy packers). Everything went smoothly until an undeclared phone was found in one of the bags. Some commotion ensued as the real owner of the suitcase was brought in from the other compartment. A calm exchange ensued via a Chinese passenger who was also fluent in Korean. More officers were summoned and a thorough search of the compartment took place as the mobile phone smuggler was sweating profusely. While I was wondering if we would be regaled with a body cavity search performed live on the train, the officer found some souvenir posters of mine which I was asked to unpack. Those were replicas of propaganda posters that we were told not to parade around customs. A perplexed look later the officer carefully packed the posters away and dished out my camera from the food-ocean and handed it over to a colleague who would go through all my photos to ensure they were all kosher. As the officer went through my holiday artsy fartsy pictures absent-mindedly some kind of solution had been found to the sino-korean mobile phone debacle, although what exactly happened is unclear to me. I noticed that the officer suddenly a 100 Chinese yuan (10 euro) note had appeared inside the pocket of the officer.

Eventually the customs inspection process came to an end and we received our passports back as well. We thus completed the 10 minute journey to  Dandong, China where a life of free mobile phone usage and a bright future of clam lunches awaited us.

Get your vote out. It’s the DEMOCRATIC People’s Republic after all…

For more photos from the DPRK, check my Flickr account

I am writing this post on the topic of the minimum wage at the request of a friend (not sure what this says about my personal life :)).

The Egyptian government recently announced a plan to increase the minimum wage first to 700 Egyptian pounds and then to 1,200 EGP (200 USD) for some 1.9 million public sector workers. The plan was detailed in the economic programme released by the Egyptian government which was the subject of a previous blog post:

The government is committed to provide a fairer wage structure. To honor this commitment, we will introduce lump sum wage increases in entities with low levels of remuneration, to achieve a minimum gross wage of LE 700 per month for all workers in the public sector in 2011/12. It is our objective to increase this wage level gradually in the coming years to reach LE 1,200 by mid-2015. The partial wage increase in 2011/12 is expected to benefit some 1.9 million employees (about one third of the total public sector work force), mostly municipal workers. It will increase the effective wage bill by around 6 percent and cost the budget about LE 7 billion. Workers earning wages above this minimum in non-targeted entities will receive their standard annual increases to contain the growth in the wage bill while maintaining incentives for progression and skill differentiation.

So this is overall good news: 1.9 million people (and their families) will supposedly received a better salary soon.

However, like in many other countries including developed ones, the issue of minimum wage becomes a highly political one (for a good overview, check this). While public sector employment is a life-time guarantee (although this has proven not to be true for those workers in publicly owned manufacturing industries that have been privatised in the past decade), a large number of  workers are employed in the private sector where the minimum wage does not apply. Actually, make it the private sector where hardly any labour law is really applied. In my personal experience, with the exception of few friends who work for large Egyptian or foreign companies (e.g. companies that are listed on the stock exchange, multinationals etc…), most Egyptians do not have a work contract. And the few who do, are often asked to sign a dateless resignation letter in case their employer decides to lay them off at some point in the future. So, it’s clear that even if a minimum wage became mandatory for private sector employees, it will probably not be applied.

So how could the Egyptian government improve the wages of the million workers in the private sector? The labour market situation requires overall restructuring in Egypt, if nothing because the informal sector, while providing employment for a large share of the workforce, is also the sector where abuses such as withholding of wages, lay offs without compensation, lack of insurance and pension rights are hardly ever addressed.

My argument is going to be that trade unions could be part of the solution (but not the only solution) to the problem of low wages in Egypt. This paper details the impact of trade unions on wage of workers. The subject is at the centre of a long and complex debate but in a nutshell, the more unionised workers are there, the more unions have bargaining power over wages and benefits. This creates a ‘Trade Union Wage Premium‘ (for more info check here). The paper mentioned above shows that the difference in wages between (similar) unionised and non-unionised workers averages around 15-20% with peaks of 34% in places like Brazil.

There are also a lot of other issues when unions come into play, including creating a situation where those who are not unionised basically represent a pool of workers that can be employed informally to avoid paying higher wages to unionised workers etc… The paper linked above does a good job of explaining the various caveats.

The point I am making here is that the discussion around the minimum wage should not only be centred around public sector wages or declaring a minimum wage also for the private sector that will not be enforced just like most of labour laws in Egypt.

Giving workers the right of assembly, the right to be a part of independent unions (with different political affiliations) could do a lot more for Egypt’s workers by increasing their bargaining power, somehow going against the patronising idea that the state gives its citizens rights as concessions as opposed to empowering them to demand, campaign and hopefully obtain what they think is best for them. Of course empowering trade unions will also require an industrial policy that is based on consultation and dialogue between employers, workers and the state – perhaps an even harder cultural shift from the current dynamics.

On the subject of labour rights, a little bonus track material on corporations and interns:
The Corporate Social Irresponsibility of the Internship Phenomenon
– aka “the highly competitive race to the bottom of the corporate ladder”

Try growing up gay in small town Southern Italy in the late 1990s. When I came out to my parents almost 10 years ago I had never met a gay person in real life. The closest role model I had was this transgender woman who adopted the son of my neighbour because the biological father was in jail (yay!). The only gay themed movie ever to be shown on Italian public TV was Philadelphia. Do not get me wrong, it is always great to see Antonio Banderas, but it would have been even nicer if instead of one of the guys dying of AIDS the couple would have ended up buying a house in the suburbs, an SUV and maybe even have a dog. Although I guess it would have not made it one of the highest impact LGBT movies in history.

Now in my country and many others, teenagers see positive role models on TV, they can meet gay people in places other than public urinals (unless they want to), some work places mention in their vacancies that they are an equal opportunity employer etc… (I got a message from our legal department today about IDAHO, what a pleasant surprise!)

Still, if the quality of life for the average LGBT person has improved, we still have a long way to go:

  • Recently even the UN realised that since LGBT people are humans, LGBT rights are human rights (shock horror!). Yet, homosexuality is still illegal/punishable by death and/or imprisonement in a number of countries.
  • A lot of countries recognise some type of same-sex partnerships, mostly in Latin America, Canada, Australia, the US, South Africa and most of Western and Central Europe except the Vatican Republic of Italy. My personal resolution is that if by 2014 Italy has not passed any type of law on civil unions I will marry the first national of one of the civilised countries above (Brazilians encouraged to apply).
  • Violence and hate speech (especially against gay teenagers and transsexuals) is still prevalent in environment such as schools, prisons and religious establishments (not making any value judgement by putting these places in the same category!). Just to throw in some random stats “lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers

Personally, my gay coming of age has been, all in all, a lot of fun. The big step I took some 9 years ago coming out has paid off and I know of a lot of people who took very risky and bold steps to live their lives the way they wanted, lost some friends and in very few cases family members for some time or indefinitely, but at least managed to lead happy and fulfilling lives as people and not as half-dead walking lies (sorry if this offends you, Mr/Miss closeted reader). I have taken some shit by some people, but by far and large I have had the fortune to be surrounded by amazing people that just see me as a person and not as a gay man (and yes, for some of the Arabophobes out there, that includes people from all walks of life I have met while living in Egypt).

So – I will go out to enjoy International Day Against Homophobia (aka I ain’t taking shit from nobody day). If any of you is contemplating suicide (hopefully not as a result of reading this blog) please watch this cute little video:

etc…

Random stat: on average, each human being has one breast and one testicle.

On International Woman’s Day I like to remember that the fight still goes on. The fight about your life not being dictated by what is in between your legs, but rather by what is in between your ears.

On the fight for equality and of James Bond in drag

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Last night I was at a house party in Cairo. I believe the way house parties have changed after the revolution deserves a fully fledged ethnographic study. Suffice to say that the usual trite ice-breakers now feature a new acquaintance’s in-depth analysis of the scenarios for the military rule and/or the possible implication of this and that on the future of Egypt. Well, maybe it’s better than the usual ‘ohwhatdoyoudohere, howlonghaveyoubeenherefor, wheredoyoulive and sodoyouspeakarabic conversation combo.

Anyways, I am digressing. Since everyone is onto this revolution bandwagon I thought, what about me??! For sure I must have some half-arsed ideas I can share with the rest of humanity on this.

So here’s the thought process. I have no idea what is going to happen to the constitution, the military rule or the incumbent minister of water and irrigation. What I am really curious about is whether this revolution will eventually end up into decent-paying jobs, not having to struggle with double-digit inflation, not having to pay for private care because public hospitals are in shambles and why not, having the luxury of attending a protest where protesters are not out-numbered by police and/or harassed by misogynist fuckers.

A lot could be said about the dismal performance of the Egyptian economy. Let’s start with income inequality. According to the CIA factbook Egypt page, the poorest 10 % of Egyptian families hold 4% of the total income of the country, versus the top 10% who holds 28%. Of course there are worse cases.  In the US, the 10% of poorest families hold 2% of the total income, while the highest 10% hold 30%. What is interesting is to look at trends in the past 30 years. Data from the World Bank shows that in the past 30 years, despite economic progress on paper, the situation has not changed. If anything, the situation has marginally in terms of the wealthier becoming slightly more wealthy.

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