Sunday, July 05, 2009

Those Pedros, Sitis and François

I was having a heated conversation with a French about purchasing power. I told him that I enjoyed a higher purchasing power when I was living in Austin with an example that hubby and me were going out for restaurant 3-4 times a week. Here in France, except for lunch with co-workers (with restaurant ticket), we hardly go to restaurant since they are expensive. He immediately replied that restaurants in the USA are cheaper because they exploit those Pedros from Mexico and pay them peanuts. Ok, personally, I didn’t go to the kitchen to check whether there was any immigrant each time I dine in a restaurant. His comment just made me think of some examples I read in the newspaper and a story written by a professor from Taiwan.

Story from a Taiwanese professor:
I was a kid whose daily activity is to wander around the street. My parents had no job so they couldn't afford to send me and my sibling to school. One day, there came a bunch of people with fancy cars and clothes. They built a factory here and hired my parents and other villages as workers. With our parents' salary, we were able to go to the school. I enjoyed learning and playing with my classmates. However, this didn't last long. One day, a bunch of people came to our village. They said they are humanist. They said the factory exploited our parents. Eventually the factory was closed and our parents were once again out of job. I was back to the street. I want to ask:"Why? Why do these humanist made our parents out of job and made me and my siblings withdrew from the school? Who are they?"

A real story from Siti, one of our Indonesian maid:
Siti is from Indonesia and she is currently working as a house maid in Malaysia. She works 15 hours a day, 7 days a week for a peanut salary. She is married and has two kids. I asked her why she wanted to work so far away from her country. She told me that she would never earn this kind of salary in her country as a maid. With her sacrifice, she can now send her kids to school, she will be able to buy a house after several years of work. She just need to continue working for some times and she will be able to change the future, if not hers, the one of her children.

Stories from French newspaper:
François was working in a factory which was a supplier for a car maker. He was laid off recently due to the recent crisis in the car industry. The unemployment agency ANPE suggested him to apply to three job, to which he refused. According to him, two of the jobs are located 100km from his house and this is just too much for him. He doesn't want to sacrifice his family time on traveling to work. The other job was not in his current line and he was not motivated for it.

Françoise was participating in a demonstration in front of her factory. She worked only during the weekend but recently the factory didn't call them to work during the weekend. Her and her coworkers discovered that the management was actually asking the weekly shift (Monday - Friday) workers to work during the weekend to compensate those who only work 3 days a week due to the slow down in demand. The management offered those weekend shift workers to change to weekly shift workers but she refused. She said:"I don't want to do this as I live 50km away from here. I can do it for two days but 5 days is simply too much. Those weekly shifts people shouldn't steal our job!"

Ok, I do not personally know any Mexican in Austin. One of my classmates was from Argentina and he told me that he worked part time delivering pizza and he was earning USD40k a year. "People pay me generous tips, a very big part of my pay". With this part time, he was able to pay off his school fees. He is now an accountant.

Now back to the comment of my French friend who talked about worker exploitation. For him, any job that is not paying minimum wage and has no holiday is considered exploitation. So, why, knowing that being exploited, these Sitis and Pedros are still willing to travel thousand kilometers away from home? For me, yes they are being exploited, but at the same time they are fighting for a better future. Without being exploited, these Pedros, Sitis might still live in poverty and will stay poor for the next couple of generations. They are not as lucky as those French who can simply refuse to travel to work and still receive government help. I just think that French shouldn't use their standard to judge other countries (just like the humanist who closed the factory with a good reason but eventually didn't change the life of the villagers there).


  1. Hi Bee Ean,

    An intriguing article. I have thought about this several times and I think explotation with education should be the way to go, e.g. perhaps via employment legislation, the Siti should be allowed half a day off to attend a course (english etc) paid by the employer and probably run by these human rights charity. This is kind of inline with several foundations and funds setup to 'redeemed' the West from the slavery sins.

  2. This is a good idea. Malaysia is talking about a mandatory day off. My mother told me that radio program has a discussion on this topic and most people expressed their objection. They simply don't want their maid to mix with others who might have bad influence on them. This Siti I know actually went to cooking lesson when she working in an Arabian country.

  3. Hi Bee Ean,

    About not giving day off was discussed here :

    where employer do have a point. But I think going to school/class would be good as the main issues seemed to stemed from the maid loittering around and picking up the wrong sort of people.

    I think all charity does not solve people problem in the long run but education/transfer of skills do. So, when exploting their labour, if employer can give them something back which will improve their life in the long run, I call that even.

    I think it is also important to teach them about finance and basic business skills so that, in Siti case, she can eventually go on to say open her own eatery, or export food (Indonesia is a huge exporter of prawn etc to EU)


  4. Bee, I agree with you that my hubby and I have more purchasing power here in Singapore (except real estate) than in France. Here, I can afford to dine out more often (excluding coffee shops and high end restaurants) than we ever did in France. I guess the question is more of how desperate are they in need of money to support their family. If they are very desperate, they wouldn't down job opportunities. I have seen families who said they have no money yet they can afford to buy toys and latest gagets for themselves n their kids yet whine non stop their desperate situation, no jobs & about government not doing anything to improve their situation. They should reflect on how can they help their country to get out of this difficult times. Government can churn out policies but if citizens just sit there do nothing, the country's economic situation isn't going improve.

  5. Honestly I do not understand the standard of "purchasing power" here. IF the standard is "ability" to dine out 3 or 4 times per week, it's true that you might cause a hole in the pocket very quickly in France. But you do have a choice, restaurants like Flunch offers a meal around 8€, with main dish as low as 6€. Though we could still find a bowl of noodles in KL at 4RM, but the average salary is about 1500RM, compared to 1500€ for the French. In MY, the cost of cooking on our own is comparable to that of eating out, so you have not much option to save money. However, if you were to make your onw meal in France, you have a possibility to save extra money. Which is more ideal? To have a choice or not to have one?

    Needless to mention about the purchasing power in terms of travelling and communication. NOt many of my MY friends can afford to come here to pay me a visit, and it's the other way around for me. My communication expenses is about 40€/month, with internet, TV, fixed phone to call MY and many countries for free, mobile phone bills.

    the french are not as worried as malaysian when they have health problems. Though the outpatient consulatation in MY is very cheap, but the hospitalistaion or surgical costs can be a nightmare for many poor families. Certain surgical waiting list is so long and only wealthier people could afford to seek care from private hospitals, and many just pass away while waiting for surgery.

    I do acknowledge many flaws in a foreign country like France, but nowhere in the world is perfect. My american colleague is happily married to a French lady and not willing to return to the USA any near future. There must be some reasons.

  6. Hi Natalie,

    I'm referring to the purchasing power in your own country where you live. Using your example, we can see that a meal costs 0.27% of a Malaysian salary but 0.53% for a French. To spend 4 euros on a meal, this French doesn't have a choice but to have to cook for himself, while his Malaysian counter part can either dine out or cook for himself.

    In terms of traveling, I know my parents in laws don't go outside of France as for them it is too expensive, and I'm sure they earn higher income than my parents, who can still afford to go to China and other neighboring countries. In my case, when I was working in the USA, with my salary I can afford to travel inside US (with airplanes, not train) and outside of US. But with my salary in France, I seldom go outside of France so that I can save enough money to go back to Malaysia.

    Medical care is one of the advantages living in France. So far it offers the nicest system among the three countries I have lived in. However, recently when I was trying to get an appointment with a specialist, I was told that I have to wait for 4 months. I was shocked but what choice do I have? Also, it is a system that has a budget of 100 euros but has 200 euros as expenses. I wish it will last but it seems that it is moving towards the US system, where in some clinic, you can pay a fee if you want to get a faster appointment. My session with the specialist was so fast as he has so many other patients waiting for him.

    I agree with you that each country has it's pros and cons. It is just depends on what you want and which stage of live you are in. I can give you many examples of French living overseas and do not wish to return. My first contact with a French (beside my husband) was a translator (French) living in US. He told me that if I want to move to France, better make sure I have a job, if not, never go there.

  7. Hi Chui Fung,

    In general, Western countries like France is excellent for lower skills people as their purchasing power/standard of living is 'lifted up', through subsidy and the professional class tend to be 'beaten' down to ensure more equality.

    This site provides a job by job comparision of salaries:

    I think the purchasing power should be compared based on individual circumstances. As a teacher, you are probably better off in Malaysia (the stats above shows as EUR2000 monthly gross, which probably leaves EUR1400 net) while an average Malaysian teacher will probably be on RM2000 net.


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  9. Hi Bee Ean,

    I would use 6€/ meal in France to calculate the percentage as you will be unlikely to get a meal with a drink for 4RM in Malaysia. So it should be 0.4% for the French to enjoy a meal outside. Again, it depends on how you look at the choices. If you prefer to save money, you have the choice of cooking your own meal; whereas in MY, you have choice to dine out or cook a meal for similar price, but not to save extra money. When people have enough to spend, they don't mind dining out for sure, but if a family is striving for life, like some farmers who earn 400RM per month with 5 or 6 kids and a housewife, no matter how much he tries, he will have no saving in the end of the month. Leave alone travelling or telecomunication facilities.
    About travelling, most of my friends and colleagues in France have travelled abroad, and according to this site:
    about 73% of French travelled for personal reasons in 2005. And only less than 10% of my malaysian friends/colleagues have been outside malaysia. For my parents, the farthest place they had been to is SIngapore, they are certainly less well off compared to yours.

    Hi Casper,
    You made a good point that purchasing power varies from profession to profession. For businessmen, you could probably make more fortune in countries which insist less on the human equality. For blue collars workers, they are treated with more respect and dignity in a country like France compared to Malaysia, and are better protected by social welfare.

    It all depends on how much we value interpersonal respects and equality vs wealth. On one hand, we could regard the French model as a rip-off for well paid population (while they still have enough to eat and travel); and on the other hand, we could regard the capitalist model as human rights exploitation (being treated sometimes worse than animals by their boss).

  10. It is not really relevant to take about food to compare the purchasing power.

    When I worked in Malaysia, I earned more or less 2000RM and I was able to makan outside almost every days. When I worked in France, my salary was quite higher but it was more difficult to manger in a restaurant. I did it more seldom, excepted when I use my "tickets restaurants".

    Since I work in Switzerland, it is even worst because the prices is prohibitive and I see, most of the restaurants in Geneva, Lausanne or Bern are quite empty. But my purchasing power is probably the best one, compared with both of previous countries.

    So, I am not sure if this criterion alone is so relevant. And I confirm what wrote Chui fung, a lot of French travel, inside or outside France. We just have to see how full are the train stations or the airports, but it probably decreased since the international crisis.

  11. All right... I think there is a standardise way of measuring this things - it is called the Purchase Power Parity (PPP), or in its simplified form, the Big Mac index.

    For example, according to CIA world fact book (this figure is no longer correct of course as the financial crisis have made all exchange rates and prices of good and services to go crazy, but iit forms the basis of the calculation):

    France GDP at real exchange rate:
    $2.978 trillion (2008 est.)

    GDP at PPP : 2.097 trillion (2008 est.)

    This means: 2.978 / 2.097 = stuff in France is about 1.42 times more expensive than in the US.

    Malaysia has real exchange rate GDP of: $222.219 billion

    and PPP GDP of 384.119 billion

    222.219 / 384.119 = 0.58

    so, when all priced in USD, goods and service in France on average cost about 2.45 times of Malaysia.

    So, someone in France NET salary needs ot be 2.45 times more than that of a person in Malaysia to have roughly equivalent standard of living/purchasing power.

    So, a teacher on RM 2k is about on USD580. A French teacher NET salary needs to be about $1420 or around $2000 gross to have the same standard of living (which seemed to be about the case, so a teacher may be slightly better off living in France than Malaysia).


  12. Even the "the Big Mac index" is not enough for a correct evaluation because it takes in consideration more or less only the cost of life.

    As you know, few more criteria have to be involve in this evaluation.

    For exemple, the healthcare. Bee Ann is wrong when she writes the French system is going to be like the American one, as it is very far from it, When I worked in France, my net salary already included everything : Sécurité Sociale" and "Mutuelle", as I can be sick without to worry, to visit a dentist, to buy glasses or to go to hospital.
    In Switzerland, I have to pay 300CHF (more or less 200€) from my net salary and even like that, the insurrance will not refund the fisrt 1500CHF.
    In Malaysia, I got 2 insurrances : one for expatriates (EupAssistance if I remember well) and one provided by my company, but it did't cover everything. I had to buy glasses but I had to do it from my pocket, and it was quite expensive regarding my salary.

    One more thing : the retirement system :
    - in Malaysia, I don't know very well how it works. I know that some people (doctors, teachers...) à can receive a amount of money as they paid all their life; but it seems it is not like that for everyone.
    In France, I paid every month as everybody. In Swiss, I can continue to take advantage of it. I Swiss, I pay every month a compulsory comtribution and an optional one. This system can be connected to the French one. In France or in Switzerland, both are already paid when I receive my net salary.
    In US, it seems people have to subscribe to the 401(k) plan. It is sometimes optional and the worker has to select a assortment of mutual funds. The money will be used to buy stocks or bonds. Since the last crisis has began, a lot of people lost a lot of money, like this guy :

    It is why it is not relevant to compare the purchase power only by comparaison of salaries. The French teacher receives at least 1500€ (net salary => but he/she already paid in the same time few insurances for retirement, accidents, etc. The brut salary is quite higher.

  13. PS : When I talk about a teacher who earn 1500€ (net salary), it is after 2 years. After 10 years, it is 1740€, after 20 years, it is 2300€ minimum, net income.
    If this teacher is "agrégé, he/she starts with 1900€ net and after 20 years, earn 3000€ nets.

  14. Hi @François,

    Obviously, there is no perfect index for comparing this as different people have different living requirement (and this includes medical requirement).

    The French system favour those who are perhaps in the lower 75 percentile in term of earning power. Those who are in the top 10 percentile will be better off living outside France. (economic wise and of course human isn't just an economic machine..and you have those lovely food in France..)

    I suppose you are aware that the French requirement system unfunded?

    Again, the health care thing, the top 10 (or maybe even top 25) precentile in the US and Malaysia will be able to buy their way to far superior health care, better service, no waiting etc. For those who can't afford, of course France offer something better. Again, it depends on one's circumstances.

    One will have plenty to worry about with the French health care system if one is a victim of the French National health care system where the bureaucracy refuses to give one the best drug available because it is too expensive and to go private will be prohibitively expensive (one can of course fly to Malaysia for treatment)

    (OK, think we are abit off topic here)
    It is true that medical is cheap (it is still a co-pay system) in France but there is no choice (OK, private choices are just way too expensive for most). If the government thinks Tamiflu is good, then you walk into the clinic and you has to have Tamiflu, even if say antiflu-X is better. If your local doctor is crap, you cannot just drive to another health district and see a really good one (we can do that in Malaysia).

    "Brut" salary - it is actually called the Gross Salary.

    Ultimately, there are some winners (even in communist systems), and some loser in every system...

  15. Hi again Easystar,

    I don't think you will meet a lot of "victims of the French National health care system". I had even never meet anybody who went to Malaysia to enjoy better cares, as the public and private systems are quite good.

    You may have to wait few months for an appointment (dentists, ophthalmologist...) but if it is an emergency, you get your appointment immediatly. It is true in France and in Switzerland.

    "If the government thinks Tamiflu is good, then you walk into the clinic and you has to have Tamiflu, even if say antiflu-X is better."
    It is not up to the government to decide but the medical doctors have to do. The French Gov ordered a lot of tamiflu (and one or two different brands) to be ready against the flue. For "usual" products, any medication can be precribed if the drug is allowed on the French territory.

    "It is true that medical is cheap in France but there is no choice. (OK, private choices are just way too expensive for most)"
    I don't know what you mean exactly by "no choice".
    - If you talk about the insurrance, you can choose the "Mutuelle" you want. If you don't want the public insurrance, you can leave it and have to choose a private one. Everybody is free to do it but not so many people did it.

    If you talk about the private/public hospitals or doctors, you can also choose.

    "Again, the health care thing, the top 10 (or maybe even top 25) precentile in the US and Malaysia will be able to buy their way to far superior health care, better service, no waiting etc."
    => I am not talking about people who can buy a plane or a swimming pool when they want, I talk about the whole part of the population. Obviouly some people are rich enough to do what they want.

    "I suppose you are aware that the French requirement system unfunded?"
    I know this system does not have enough money and they try to imrove it. But it is up to the french population to decide how they want to manage it. Actually, many countries have a serious public deficit, including USA.

  16. Hi Francois,

    Thanks for the clarification and apologise for some of the errors I made where I projected the experience from UK NHS system. I agree now the the French Health System is pretty good and a good majority of the population can get the care they need (other than cost).

  17. Natalie,

    My parents are not better off as they were once blue collar workers. They got some money from my siblings and they are willing to spend them on travel. When my aunt and mother visited me in the USA, I covered most of their expenses, but sadly, when they came to France, I was not able to do the same, one of the reasons why I think that my purchasing power is lower here. Each time I go back to Malaysia, my siblings will treat me to restaurants. When my French family and friends visited Malaysia, they were treated to restaurants almost everyday. However, when my family was in France, both me and my in laws were not able to do the same, after a day of sightseeing, we had to rush home to cook for them.

    Of course dining is only a very tiny portion to see someone's purchasing power. I used this as an example as I still remember the happy hours we had with my family, when my father would buy us supper and it only cost like RM10 (fried rice, fried noodles) to feed the whole family. To a poor family, eating out was something. Now, both me and hubby are white collar, but we have less happy hours like this.

    About traveling, I observed that vacations are very important to some French. Some of them are willing to spend on travel even though they are living in a rental apartment and not able to afford to buy one. But in Malaysia, some people prefer to save money to speed up their mortgage payment than to go on vacation. My friends, I think they can afford to visit Europe if they want (some came already for honeymoon :-)), but they prefer to save money so they choose to go to the neighboring countries instead.

    I have a mixed feeling with the medical system due to my personal experience. Since I can't get an appointment with a specialist, I'm being followed by my generalist. Each time she was not sure about something, she sent me to a specialist whom will later assure me that everything is fine. Recently, she wanted me to stop working and take infinitive sick leaves. I refused. She then sent me to see the specialist under an urgent case. As usual, the specialist said my condition is normal. Can you imagine that? I could have been in a sick leave if I didn't refuse it. If I have a choice, I would like to be followed directly by a specialist and save everyone's time. I don't mind to pay a fee to get one but this private clinic's secretary refused to give me an appointment. Once, I asked to have a diagnosis of a situation but my doctor said I should wait for 2 years before doing this diagnosis. I almost did it in Malaysia as I know I could just walk in and get the result right away. Due to the hectic schedule I didn't do it but I regretted it so much.

    I think all these social benefits that France is offering is good for the population. However, these benefits added up the labor cost and living cost. In my humble opinion, this is one of the reasons that why there is constantly a high unemployment rate. I was very surprised when seeing the doctors here have to play the secretary and cashier roles. I wonder if it is too expensive to hire a secretary. Without all these social charges, will each doctor be able to afford a secretary and thus create more jobs?