Saturday, July 26, 2008

An "Estonian" Salary

“You need to be prepared to work for an Estonian salary,” the owner of an English-language magazine said to me, after he offered me the job as editor in chief.

“An Estonian salary?” I had to ask. “What’s that mean?”

“A small salary,” he qualified.

“Oh,” I said. “You should have said Lilliputian.”

“I said Estonian.” He frowned.

The offer was for ten thousand Estonian kroons per month net, about one thousand US dollars.

“Could you live on that much?” I asked him.

“Well, you’ll be the peatoimetaja.” The editor in chief.

Indeed. If I could only eat the title.

Every time I think about quitting my freelance work and getting a serious job, this same conversation occurs. I always try to be polite. I delicately mention that a home in Estonia costs more than in Canada. Groceries in Estonia cost more. Gasoline costs more. Clothing. Cars. Building materials. Even Chinese food. In fact, other than beer and cigarettes, what doesn’t cost more in Estonia? I usually end the conversation by drawing an employer’s attention to a Postimees article which reported that a prison guard earns 18,000 EEK per month. And he gets to carry a sidearm.

I’ve discussed the situation with an American writer friend of mine (also married to an Estonian) who spends his summers in Estonia. His wife works here, and though he speaks Estonian, he doesn't consider taking a job here. “Estonians work hard,” he says. “And they get paid shit. I just don’t understand the economics.”

Some say the pay depends on the industry. Jobs in Estonia’s financial sector, arguably the country’s fastest-developing industry, pay living wages. The rest of the country has yet to catch up, and Estonian employers benefit greatly from the transitional status of the nation’s young professionals: many are still living with mom and dad, or have only recently moved out on their own. The population-at-large doesn’t carry first-world financial burdens which will drive up salaries and, versus their western counterparts, they’re able to live on a lot less money.

Of course greed is a factor, too. You don’t need to have read Marx to know that the job of the capitalist is to exploit the workers. Estonian companies are taking record profits, paying fat dividends and, depending on whom you talk to, not reinvesting much. They won’t be able to do it forever, but they’re making hay while the sun shines. I accept this is the way it is, but out of principle, I turn away from it when I can. The astute reader may catch me bitching here, but I’d ask you not read it as foreign arrogance. I do realize many people don’t have the option to earn money outside the country. I admit I have the luxury of choice.

My selfish greed aside, what ought to bother Estonians about the pathetic salaries is how they’re connected to the national identity. Using the words “Eesti palk” (Estonian salary) is a bit like striking a peasant with your cane. “Eesti palk. Know your place, boy.” I desperately wish people would stop pairing those words. The more it occurs the more the two words fuse and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the more “Estonia” becomes a synonym for “small.” Were I King of Estonia, referring to the republic as small would be tantamount to treason. Swift gave us one Lilliput. We hardly need another.

I turned down the job as editor in chief. I put on my smiling North-American face and thanked them profusely for the opportunity. I shook the man’s hand and wished him well. But what I really wanted to do was tell him the New York expression for companies like his: “Yours is a great place to work, if my parents could afford to send me.”

But I didn’t say it. But as I walked out the door, I couldn’t resist saying something to strike a blow for the workers of the world. So I mentioned that as soon as they could find a bank willing to give me an “Estonian mortgage” that I’d come back and take his “Estonian salary.” Then I nodded politely and closed the door.