For many Mexicans, holding a decent, steady job has become either a distant memory or a fading hope. An increasing number are opting to simply call out their trades on the street, offer their services or sell what they can on the street and other public spaces. Or leave the country. Or accept an offer—plomo o plata (a bullet or a nice sum of money)—they can’t refuse.
According to the government's National Statistics institute (INEGI), over the past decade self-employment has accounted for roughly 20% of all the “jobs” held by members of the non-agricultural workforce. Self-employment can mean many things, some of them quite creative and remunerative, but in Mexico it is all too frequently a last refuge for those who have nowhere else to go.
A few weeks ago two high-ranking cabinet members, Secretary of finance Ernesto Cordero and Secretary of Labor Javier Lozano, held a joint press conference to announce that over 271,000 formal jobs (jobs carrying pensions and public health-care eligibility) had been created in the first quarter of 2011, three-quarters of which carried “permanent” eligibility for Social Security benefits.
While Cordero admitted that despite the good news the federal government was nonetheless worried about the quality of these new jobs, Lozano said the jobs weren’t all that bad, carrying an average wage of about 246 pesos (about US$20) a day—an income that most labor economists estimate to be barely what is needed to bring an urban family of four out of poverty. Lozano was telling us that the average Mexican family needed several wage earners to live above the poverty line—and that’s if they had the good fortune to work permanently in the formal economy.
The kicker is that about half the jobs in the Mexican economy—over 13 million—are now in the informal sector, offering low wages, no public pensions, no public health insurance, no access to public housing, and precious few benefits. If you are earning at, near or under the poverty line, those missing extras make the burden hard to bear.
INEGI excludes the criminal sector from its count of informal jobs, focusing on work in commerce (selling in the Metro or on the street) or small workshops. In March that sector accounted for 13.5 million jobs. In March, the number of people holding these legal, informal jobs was greater than the 12.9 million workers permanently affiliated with the Social Security system.
Which brings us back to plata o plomo. The more vulnerable the working population, the more likely that recruitment strategy is to be successful. A real war against drug trafficking and organized crime must start with that realization. Improving a worker’s lot in the job market may be the best place to begin a real attempt to bring Mexico’s endemic violence under control.