Saturday, June 15, 2024

Employment in Mexico: rising prices, fixed salaries and few ‘good jobs’

One of my husband’s friends in an industrial city, a talented engineer, just quit his job and moved back home.

His employer refused to respect the duties set forth (not to mention overtime pay) in his contract, insisting that he produce a finished project without the necessary tools, manpower or programs to do so.

For this, he received 16,000 pesos — about US $850 — a month, putting him in the top 5% of all earners in Mexico.

A friend of mine with a master’s degree is cobbling together teaching, private tutoring and secretarial work for around the same amount. She works — easily — 10-14 hours a day in order to earn it.

Yet another good friend works full-time for the university, and earns roughly 6,000 pesos a month in a position that requires her to have completed a bachelor’s degree. I asked her how much she felt she’d need to earn to live in this city comfortably, and she answered 15,000 a month. If she had to pay rent and had a car, that number would go up to at least 20,000.

As of July 2018, earning above 13,255 pesos (US $700) a month puts one over the top 5% of earners threshold; presumably, this has changed a bit as a result of the increase in the minimum wage, but more recent reliable data could not be found.

No one I know around my age or younger (including me: I am 37, the top threshold of the “millennial” generation) owns a home that was not either inherited from a family member or bought either completely or in large part for them by their parents.

I’ve heard some brag that they’ve bought homes on their own, only to find out later that they sold another type of inherited property or business in order to do so, which isn’t exactly “bootstrapping” it.

Wages in Mexico have never been something to write home about, but most argue that the cost of living is also considerably lower, so (logic would say) it all evens out. I’m officially calling it on that nonsense.

In reality, buying power has been decreasing as costs for basic goods and services continue to rise. The price of gasoline is an obvious example, and even for those without cars, the increased cost of transportation as a result hits their pocketbooks.

My own grocery bills are nearly double what they were three years ago, my daughter’s colegiatura goes up by 10% every year, and prices for everything from movie theater tickets to dog food continue to escalate. Home ownership, for me and for many in my generation without inheritable wealth, is a dream not even worth spending energy on. Unless a pile of money suddenly falls from the sky, it’s simply not going to happen.

What does it mean to have a “good” job in Mexico? I was shocked when, a couple of months ago, I was walking down the street in central Orizaba and saw a big, glossy sign promoting the exciting opportunity for one lucky young lady (between the ages of 18 and 28) to work full time in a clothing store for 3,500 pesos a month.

It’s true, the amount of money it costs to live in a certain area of Mexico can vary widely from place to place, but even in a “cheap” community, a 3,500-peso full-time salary (which is still shockingly more than minimum wage unless you’re near the northern border) is pitiful.

My friends who earn 6,000-16,000 a month are better off, but still worry about how much higher and how quickly prices will continue to rise while their wages don’t seem to budge an inch.

It seems that raising prices is always a justifiable action, but raising wages never is, and I’m shocked that anyone, even in Mexico, can talk about an “exciting opportunity” that offers 3,500 or even 8,000 pesos a month with a straight face. It’s hardly difficult to understand why so many people decide to simply not work or to strike out on their own in the informal sector.

As a sociologist, my interest is always in stepping back and panning out, Google Maps-style, to get an idea of the overall picture. How typical are our situations? What forces are at work that our own grit and wishes cannot control?

If we work for others, there’s only so much we can demand in terms of wages and benefits, especially in a market with so many looking for a reduced number of “good” jobs in what feels like a perverse game of musical chairs, where the chairs are actually uneven stumps.

We don’t control the prices of things we must buy to live. We can try our best to get an education, but don’t control and can’t completely predict where the money-making jobs will be. And anyway, there are plenty of important jobs out there that don’t require a four-year-degree.

Wouldn’t it be something if we paid people based on how essential their jobs were to the functioning of our society and community rather than how much money they could make for investors?

I worry about my generation and those who come after it, here in Mexico and in the rest of the world. All over, the cost of living is increasing while salaries stay stubbornly put. It’s easy to forget that actual people are in charge of these things, isn’t it?

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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