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Late-running Bolivia considers punctuality 'bonuses'

By Andres Schipani
BBC News, La Paz

An alarm clock
Many Bolivians admit they struggle to be on time

In almost any city, anywhere in the world, you could find yourself stuck in a traffic jam from 0700 to 0900.

But not in La Paz in Bolivia - 9am is when rush hour really starts.

People begin heading to work then, even if they were supposed to be at their office or factory 30 minutes or even an hour earlier.

This chronic lateness is the result of what is known as "Bolivian time" which the government is now aiming to tackle with bonuses for punctual workers.

Samuel Mendoza, a taxi driver in La Paz, considers himself a Bolivian exception. Because he works mainly with foreigners, he says, he is forced to be on time.

Cab driver Samuel Mendoza in La Paz
Taxi driver Samuel Mendoza has got used to being on time

Mr Mendoza knows his compatriots well. Most Bolivians, he explains, take being late as part of their duty.

"Bolivians are really irresponsible, there is no culture of punctuality here, they don't arrive on time to work or anywhere else, it seems they don't wear a watch on their wrist," he says.

"It is just something very Bolivian."

Indeed it is. In Bolivia, if you are told to meet somebody at a certain time, it is quite likely that the person will show up 30 minutes late - if you are lucky.

But the Bolivian government thinks things should change. It is working on a labour reform that, among other things, aims to break this national habit of arriving late for everything, from work to meetings to dates.

Bolivians aren't known for their time-keeping
Victor Hugo Chavez
Ministry of Labour lawyer

And the government has decided that the only way to change habits is to offer a financial incentive. In one of South America's poorest countries, that extra money might mean a lot to many people.

"Bolivians are not traditionally known for their time-keeping. So Bolivians who arrive at work on the dot every day could get a 'punctuality bonus', a recognition," Victor Hugo Chavez, a lawyer from the Ministry of Labour, told the BBC.

And it might mean a lot for the economy. The government of President Evo Morales believes Bolivians' tardiness costs the country millions of dollars in lost work time.

National sickness

"We think this will increase productivity, and hence be good for the economic development of our impoverished country," Mr Chavez said.

The reform is likely to be voted into law this month without being drastically changed, because Mr Morales' party has a majority in Congress.

It should be noted that Mr Morales also seems to suffer this national trait. He is often late for rallies and public appearances.

On one occasion, journalists - including your correspondent - walked out of the presidential palace in anger after he made them wait nearly two hours for a news conference.

Government projects seem to proceed at the same languid pace. Roadworks in the middle of La Paz, for example, should have produced a tunnel months ago. It has just been completed.

Bolivian student Patricia
Bolivian student Patricia says even lecturers cannot be on time

"Workers are sometimes late, sometimes very late", said Aristoteles Ona, one of the site managers. "There's nothing one can do, that's 'Bolivian time'."

Students at a central university in La Paz also struggle to shed light on the national "condition".

"Sometimes my lecturers show up 15 minutes, sometimes half an hour late. And sometimes they don't even show up," says Patricia, who is taking a degree in computer science.

"It was the same when I was at kindergarten, primary and secondary school. So a lot of times I'm late too. I've been absorbing that lateness for years."

She adds, with some resignation: "That is our time, the 'Bolivian time'. I am not sure this bill will manage to change something so quintessentially Bolivian."



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