Suitcase on wheels     stuck in the snow   sniffer dog

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

66. Going home (temporarily) (Auckland, NZ)

Last Friday I finally submitted all the papers necessary to start my business. It took me 3 months to get everything organised, which was longer than even I expected. I was always pessimestic regarding the amount of time it would take as I knew how bureaucratic Argentina is, but 3 months was way too long.

As such, I've run out of money. And now they tell me I'll have to wait 30 working days for my application to be approved (IF everything's in order). 30 working days = six calendar weeks, which ties in with about when I was due to return from my friend Stu's wedding in New Zealand. Faced with six weeks of waiting I decided to change my flight and go back to NZ earlier, to try and find some work to save some money. Saving money was something I could never hope to do teaching English in BA.

TIP: I asked STB (the useless travel agent I used) to change the dates on my flight and they were going to charge me US$35 for EACH date change. So then I went to Aerolineas Argentinas' office and they changed the dates for me for free. I guess the flexibility to freely change your flight dates is one of the reasons flights over here are relatively more expensive - and another reason why if the flight you want is full, keep trying again the next day as passengers here always change their tickets.

So, here I am now in Auckland. I arrived at 5am this morning and had the misfortune to find my suitcaseonwheels did not arrive, so at the moment I have no clothes nor toothbrush, nor gifts for my family and friends. The airline says it should turn up in a few days, but if not they'll pay me even though I don't have travel insurance, which is reassuring.

In a few days I'll be settled and will start the jobhunt. Although my field is IT it would take too long for me to find work in that (since I'm only here two months) so I'll be looking for anything, bar work, labouring whatever.

Blog-wise, well it'll be a good time for reflection on the things I miss and the things I won't miss about living in Buenos Aires so I'll keep the posts coming. Already today I'm noticing how Auckland traffic isn't as hectic or noisy as BA. No one uses their horn here unlike horn-heavy BA. And for lunch I just enjoyed a chicken sandwich better than any I've had in the last year in Argentina. And how much more affordable computers and electronics are in NZ.

At my farewell drinks one of my Argentine friends, Pozzy, asked me a question he'd first asked me shortly after I arrived - what were the differences between Argentina and NZ. At the time I'd avoided the question by saying I hadn't been in Argentina long enough to form a true opinion. But this time I explained that I've noticed many differences between our two countries and I'm sad to say most of the differences are for the worse in Argentina. What was the worst thing, he asked me. My answer was the corruption. For example, in NZ I've never known anyone to even try bribe a cop, let alone actually bribe one. Paying a cop an instant fine is a daily occurance in BA (but only if you're caught doing something wrong). Bear in mind NZ is one of the most transparent countries in the world so I have been a little sheltered from corruption for most of my life. But the police in Argentina are no more corrupt than the majority of business owners or workers - after all, up to 50% of the population work en negro which means they pay no income taxes. Many businesses have two sets of books - one the real set and the other what they use to show the tax authorities. Widespread tax evasion, an everyman form of corruption (in my mind) is crippling, especially in a country with 40% of the population in poverty. I guess this high acceptance of corruption goes hand in hand with the high level of bureacracy here - much of the bureaucracy exists for the purpose of catching or preventing corruption.

Which lead me to explain to Pozzy my second grave difference between life here and life there - the bureacracy. I actually get really hot under the collar thinking back on the hoops I have had to jump through to get anything done, and even more so when I think about the losses in productivity on a national scale a bureaucratic nationhood creates. It took me 3 whole months to get my papers ready and present them (and not because I'm foreign, that's the norm for everyone). And now another six weeks of waiting. That's 4 and a half months of no business for me, no jobs for my would-be employees, no food on my employee's tables, no money in their local shopkeeper's pockets, which hurts everyone.
Additionally, doing all that paperwork was my fulltime job for 3 months - I could not have done the paperwork outside of normal working hours as many of the government deptarments I had to deal with had ridiculously short working hours - 9:30am until 12:30pm in one case. And the amount of number-taking, queue-waiting, and form-filling required meant each form would take half a day or more, as dozens or even hundreds of people every day were waiting doing the same pointless forms. If I was an employee no boss would give me half a day off every day to wait in line and fill out forms. If I was an average Pedro hoping to start up my own business I would have had to quit my job and live off my savings for 3 whole months just to push papers. I imagine that's a barrier for many would-be entrepreneurs to starting their own businesses. The system needs to recognise that small businesses are the driving engine of the economies of developed countries - not big corporations or state-owned enterprises, but small businesses. They need to do more to encourage and nurture small businesses and not hinder them with pointless form-filling in triplicate day after day.

Take the other day for example. When I signed up to pay taxes I stupidly said I would have an employee as I thought I would be started by February. February came and went and we still hadn't started so still no employee. I went into AFIP (the tax authorities) to get the non-existant employee dropped off our non-existant payroll. There was a form for this which I filled out, but then the man said I had to present Formulario 931. Where do I get that? He explained to me my accountant could generate it for me, or I could generate it myself if I downloaded the AFIP software from their webpage. OK. So I went to the internet cafe, downloaded the software, unzipped the file, ran the setup, installed a patch, and was ready to go. Since I'm a computer guy it wasn't too hard but I couldn't help thinking the average user wouldn't even have gotten past the first step, as the popup blocker would have blocked the window.

Then I entered the program and for the life of me couldn't find Formulario 931. Eventually I succumbed and called my accountant and asked her to prepare it for me, for which I knew she'd charge me. The next working day I went to her office and collected it, and she gave me a printout of the Formulario along with a floppy disk. The next step, she explained, was to present the floppy disk to a bank teller. What? Yes, she gave me a plastic floppy disk and told me to take it to the bank. After 15 mins in the queue the first bank I went to didn't accept the disk as they just don't. The next one I found accepted the disk, but when the teller inserted it in her PC the PC reported "disk error", as is wont to happen with about 60% of the floppy disks I've ever used. Another call to the accountant, and she said she'd prepare another disk for me the following day. Back again the next day, but at least this time I knew which bank to go in to. But this time the teller told me I had a "version error". My accountant had prepared the formulario using version 2600 of the AFIP's software, being the latest from the AFIP's page. But the banks were still running version 2500 of the software and wouldn't update their systems until the start of the next working month. Another call to the accountant, and the following day she had for me prepared the formulario but this time using the AFIP's web page. I then took that print out and presented it to the AFIP office, and with that presented I could present the other (hand written) formulario necessary to get the non-existant employee removed from my non-existant payroll. I have written this boring account to illustrate how tedious the system is, and how something which could be resolved with a 5 minute phone call takes 3 or 4 working days. And how almost everything in the public (and often the private) sector is that way. One exception: the other day I purchased car insurance for my vehicle and that was an efficient half hour process. But that's the only time here in the last year I've thought "wow, that was easy".

So why on earth am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through all this? Why don't I go back to my country and stop whinging? Well 1, for love. My girlfriend's Argentinian. And 2, for money - because things are cheaper I can start a business here whereas I would need a lot more capital to start one in NZ. But mainly, because I believe that Argentina is a land of opportunity. Every week I think of a new idea for a business which would work here. I'm not talking about brand new ideas, but simple things. Things that you have back home that don't exist in the Argentina. Or things that exist but are crappily done. A few months ago I thought, why isn't there an Argentine version of eBay? I started thinking about forming a business plan but stopped when I soon found one already existed - Mercado Libre. However, I'd never heard of the site and neither had my friends and I'd actually had to search to find it. Six months later and evidentally others thought there was room to enter the online auctions market, as two new similar sites have recently popped up, both with heavy TV advertising campains: Mas Opportunidades and DeRemate. Opportunity exists, but know what you're getting in to. I kind of did, but not well enough. And I still haven't even started business yet.


  • Your accountant could have reported that form online. It is a printed report of the data the user inputs in that little program, so you won't see it until the end, plus a certain knowledge about social security laws is necessary to fill it. Mercado Libre and De Remate are older than you think, so maybe you just weren't paying attention.
    DF @ the thorn tree

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:22 PM  

  • Yeah, eBay-type sites have been around for a while. But I'm sure you've noticed how little faith Argentines generally have in their countrymen. The people I've talked to seem to think that buying something off such a site would be equivalent to hanging a "scam me" sign on your back. As one person told me a few weeks ago, forget about buying over the Internet. And the only thing she'd consider ordering sight unseen would be a pizza.

    The business model might be fine -- obviously eBay is successful -- but there are societal obstacles in this case and I'm not sure how a business is supposed to overcome those.

    In any case, the AFIP thing is amazing. It was strangely comforting to read your paperwork account. I have a relatively simple tax situation -- I'm self-employed, no employees -- and the most remarkable thing is how difficult it is to do the right thing. With the abysmal tax compliance rates in this country, you might think one thing they would do is spell out exactly what is necessary to pay your tax, how and when to do it, etc. But no. The AFIP site is a joke and good information is hard to find.

    Everything invariably requires multiple trips to AFIP, nets you different answers each time, etc. My Spanish is good and so it's not a language barrier thing. I've asked around and most Argentines I know have similar tales. My most recent strategy has been to try to appeal to the desk worker's sense of pity, a la, "Look, I'm not from here and I'm baffled and I don't know how anything works, so will you please explain to me as though I were a 5-year-old exactly what I need to do, etc.?" Depending on the person, you might get more than just the brush-off. Although you're never guaranteed to get the same answer next time you come around, of course.

    Like you, though, I have been amazed and saddened at how much time this all sucks up. What if I were trying to hold down a 9-7 job during all this paperwork B.S.?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:17 AM  

  • I'm not here to dispute your arguments, they are true, even if embedded with some bitterness. In my opinion, the hermetic character of the local bureaucracy favours the proliferation of unnecessary and burdensome intermediaries. There is no law requiring the use of accountants or lawyers to do the taxation (I got angry stares from my college mates after I said this a few years ago). I hope you don't fall prey of the sharks out there, BA is a large city and its alienation magnifies the classic argentine defects... I mean, it seems to have took its toll on you already, this blog has a certain tone...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:00 PM  

  • DF - yep, as I said she eventualy did it online: "Another call to the accountant, and the following day she had for me prepared the formulario but this time using the AFIP's web page.", but after sending me on the runaround with a pair of floppy disks.

    To poster 3, yes you're right, I guess the locals pay intermediaries to do the paperwork for them, when possible. Of course there's always some paperwork that has to be done in person.

    I'd never noticed the online auction sites (apart from mercadolibre), to me it seems like they've only started advertising recently. I mustn't have been paying attention.

    By Blogger mattyboy, at 12:14 PM  

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