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Working in Costa Rica

 

It's a common daydream: the vacation is ending, or more likely, the money is running out and you decide to stay and see if living in this country is for you. You'll get a job at a hotel or a store and let the chips fall where they may. It's a nice dream but in Costa Rica, it's almost impossible to realize. While foreigners are welcomed as well as tourists, business owners and investors. There are serious restrictions on working in Costa Rica and obtaining work permits. However, starting a business is so easy even someone on a tourist visa is allowed to form a corporation and hire employees. This isn't to say it's impossible to find employment in Costa Rica but the entire immigration and labor system is designed to protect the local workforce and encourage new business investment. As an expatriate in Costa Rica, your financial success will depend on your initiative and entrepreneurial spirit rather than your value as an employee.

 

Working Life

Costa Rica has one of the strongest labor markets in the region with an equally high employment rate. Most of this success can be attributed to the education system, commitment to foreign investment and most importantly, strong labor laws. Workers in Costa Rica are afforded equal if not greater protection than workers in North America and Europe. Minimum wages, maximum work weeks, overtime and severance pay, and mandatory vacation days are all guarded by Costa Rica's labor laws and enforcement is taken very seriously.

Every six months, the government publishes an exhaustive list of minimum wages for almost every occupation in the country. Employers are required to refer to this list and update their salaries accordingly. For example, the minimum wage for a unskilled worker is around USD$2.50 per hour while a university-educated employee will earn over USD$5.00 per hour. Costa Rica also has an income tax, with workers paying up to 25 percent of their income annually.

There are maximum work weeks for all kinds of jobs and overtime must be paid at a rate of the hourly wage plus 50 percent. For normal working days, between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m., you can only work a maximum eight to ten hours per day, 48 hours per week. Night time work, between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m., has a reduced maximum of six hours per day and 36 hours per week. Weekends are considered special working days with a maximum of 12 hours per day. Young workers between the ages of 15 and 18 years are only legally allowed to work a maximum of six hours per day and 36 hours per week.

Employees are also entitled to a number of benefits, which must be supplied by their employer, including:

  • All employers must register with the government social security agency and pay into an employee health care fund.
  • Employers must also purchase an occupational insurance policy that covers all of their employees.
  • Employees are entitled to aguinaldo, a Christmas bonus equal to one month's salary.
  • Mothers are allowed one month of paid pre-natal leave and three months of paid post-natal leave and cannot be legally dismissed because of a pregnancy.
  • Workers are entitled to one day of vacation for every month of employment, with two weeks of vacation time due after 50 weeks of work. Weekends and national holidays do not count as vacation days.

Labor unions are rare in Costa Rica. Most are involved with various government agencies but there are a few in private factories and banana plantations. The largest union is the Confederation of Costa Rican Workers. Typically, companies have employee associations that have no collective bargaining power and function as a savings and loan entity. The employer and employees deposit a percentage of the salaries into these associations for savings and to cover severance packages. There are regulations determining when an employee can be fired and how much severance pay they receive.

There are a number of ways you can protect yourself if you do lose your job. While you are employed, you can buy different insurance policies that will take care of your expenses for a period of time. There is Unemployment Insurance that provides a temporary income based on your average salary for the previous three months. This insurance is limited and only available to certain workers. You can also pay into an income insurance policy which will protect you in the event of unemployment. A Credit Card Protection Policy will pay your credit card payments for one year while you're unemployed and the Unemployed Protection Policy will cover your credit card and mortgage payments. Workers between 15 and 18 years of age can purchase an Adolescent Work Insurance policy to cover injury and illness incurred while working. Employers can also purchase insurance for their domestic help. These are all optional yet affordable policies to protect workers. All of these policies are available from the government's insurance agency.

 

Finding Local Work

While Costa Rica has encouraged foreign companies to set up shop, welcomed foreign investment and made it attractive and easy for foreigners to live here, they have understandably stopped short of opening up its labor market to foreign workers. You can see the labor policy at work in immigration, where the two most common types of residency, rentista and pensionado, allow foreigners to start a business and hire workers but not to become an employee. Foreigners on tourist visas are also allowed to start corporations in Costa Rica but cannot be an employee.

A permit is required to legally work in Costa Rica. If you are offered a job, your employer might offer to submit your permit application for you or they may just give you an official letter of employment that will allow you to start the application on your own. The lengthy and difficult process that follows when legally hiring foreigners is the reason why many cannot find any work. It's easier to hire a Tico, who is just as educated and skilled and will work very hard for less money. In fact, wages in Costa Rica are only 10 to 15 percent of what someone would earn in North America or Europe.

Employers will find it easier to acquire a work permit for a foreigner if the job falls into a technical, highly-skilled category. For example, scientists, doctors, nurses, some professors, students and priests will be allowed to work legally. Other specialized professions, such as artists, entertainers, sports trainers, coaches and company executives can also qualify for work permits.

If you want to work in Costa Rica legally and still earn the same salary as you did at home, there are a few options. You can find work with multinational corporations or non-government organizations in Costa Rica. These companies frequently have foreign workers on staff. If you already have a job in your home country that allows you to work from your home, you are able to work legally as long as you are paid and employed by a company outside of the country and your work has nothing to do with Costa Rica. For example, there are plenty of information technology professionals living in Costa Rica that work from home and are employed by companies around the world.

If you are happy earning a regular Costa Rican salary, there are few places you can look for employment. There are job listings published in local newspapers La Nación, La República and The Tico Times. Some jobs are also posted in international newspapers from France, Germany and the UK. There are also international job boards on the Internet. International staffing agencies such as Adecco and Manpower also have offices in Costa Rica, if you're looking for temporary work. Language schools are also a popular option for foreigners especially in the growing market for English instruction.

If you're looking for a certain position or a particular company, both international and local chambers of commerce usually have lists of businesses and contact information. It's a common practice in Costa Rica to send out targeted letters and résumés to those in charge of hiring.

 

Transferring for Work

Over the past thirty years, Costa Rica has welcomed multinational corporations into the country - and more importantly, the economy. These companies, whether they are opening branch offices or production facilities, are viewed not only as tax generators but excellent employment opportunities for local Tico workers. However, many of these companies require specialized or experienced employees for certain positions and transfer foreign employees to Costa Rica.

Companies are allowed to make up ten percent of their workforce with foreign employees. Many times these are managers, executives and technical personnel that are not available in Costa Rica. These employees require special residency visas and work permits from the Costa Rican government, which the company will probably arrange prior to the employee's arrival. These work permits need to be renewed annually. Of course, most companies have fewer than ten percent foreign employees. Thanks to Costa Rica's excellent education system, the local workforce is highly educated and skilled, and usually asks for lower salaries than expatriates in the same position.

Since most foreign employees are upper-management and specialty workers, Ticos don't really see these expatriates as taking a job away from a local worker. There is a recognition that foreign investment is good for the country and foreign workers simply add to Costa Rica's global reputation.

 

Volunteering

If you're not looking for paid work, volunteering is one of the greatest ways to give back to a country that offers so much. Costa Rica has many volunteer opportunities across the country that involve environmental conservation, wildlife protection and community development projects.

The easiest way to find out what volunteer opportunities are available in your neighborhood is to ask around and explore your community. There are plenty of national parks, conservation areas, schools and orphanages that welcome volunteers at their operations. Costa Rican residents also have plenty of opportunity to volunteer at any number of organizations outside of their immediate community. Many expatriate associations in the Central Valley have long-standing relationships with schools or wildlife protection projects for which they regularly volunteer and raise funds.

Global aid organizations such as the Red Cross and Oxfam have local offices in Costa Rica. While many of their foreign workers come to Costa Rica for work on specific projects, these organizations typically have a local volunteer corps that assists them as well.

 

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