Saturday, June 15, 2024

How to solve Mexico’s worker shortage: give them what they need

A friend of mine just went back to work after the birth of her twins close to a decade ago, something she’s been itching to do for about as much time. Having long been separated from her children’s father, and without family nearby, it’s been a chaotic transition when it comes to childcare.

The first challenge is that her workday ends at 6 p.m., a typical schedule for offices around here. Her children’s school day ends at 2 p.m. Then there are days when one or both of them are sick and can’t attend school, or teacher in-service days. Upon us now, of course, is their summer vacation.

Currently, about half of what she earns goes to private childcare since there’s no one around who can take over parenting duties while she finishes her workday. Any unexpected childcare need sends her scrambling to figure out how to make sure she both keeps her job and her kids simultaneously alive and well.

And she’s one of the lucky ones: she’s living in a house, albeit modest, that her father bought for her when she moved to the city for college long ago, and she receives a stipend from him that’s at least allowed her to survive. 

Her kids are with their father about half the time, so at least on those days, she can go about her life and job relatively freely. She was thrilled to be able to work again in a way that might allow her to actually earn some extra income beyond essential expenses — I hadn’t seen her so happy and relaxed in years — but a brick wall plummets in front of her every time a kid gets sick and can’t go to school. On planned no-school days, it’s just a regular lowering of a brick wall.

Another friend of mine is frustrated because she feels she’s spent her prime career- and wealth-building years making enfrijoladas for her kid and doing endless loads of laundry while her husband works double-digit hours a day. 

Her entrepreneurial spirit has taken her a few paces in the direction she’d like to go, but the limits of home and childcare responsibilities, even with the help of family nearby, keep her tied down in a way that doesn’t allow her to fly in the ways she knows she could.

Yet another friend feels guilty because she’s been working long hours and building her career, limiting the amount of time she’s able to spend with her son. Another works long hours as well but doesn’t feel quite as guilty — her husband has been able to take on the role of primary parent.

I thought about my friends as I read recent articles stating that 75% of businesses in Mexico struggle to find workers

Hmm, a worker shortage. What to do, what to do…

If the average salary of a customer service employee at Liverpool — a popular department store where many a product costs more than what Liverpool’s workers make in a month — is typical of the jobs on offer (and I believe it is), then I can think of a few things that might get workers through the door. After all, could you support a household, or even yourself, on less than 7,000 ($416 USD) pesos a month given for full-time hours?

“Well, those are unskilled workers,” you might say. 

Arguments about what counts as “skilled” and “unskilled” aside (which usually have more to do with the worker’s opportunities to attend high school and college), I’ve noticed in Mexico that even most professionals with master’s degrees in education, law and administration top out below $20,000 pesos monthly — now $1,190 USD thanks to the “superpeso” that, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be increasing any worker’s actual buying power. 

It wasn’t always like this. During the prime working years of Mexico’s “baby boom” generation, it was often possible to acquire the trappings of a middle-class life — buying property, securing pensions, etc. — if you simply worked hard at the job you had, especially if you were a professional. 

But a few economic crises later, Mexican workers have seen their purchasing power drastically decrease in the same ways that those of us north of the Mexican border have. Prices have increased as if wages had also increased. 

But if the prices are a cheetah, worker pay has been a tortoise. 

If I were given the chance to work and support my family on a wage that would not provide enough for us to survive, I would choose…not to. I’d try to start my own business, even if that business were selling gum or washing windshields at intersections. After all, if it’s possible to make more money doing that than at working a “legitimate” official job, is that not the scandal?

Besides pay, there’s the very real problem of a six-day, 48-hour workweek, the benefits of which most people find laughably inadequate.

If employers want workers, they have to make it possible to work. And the Mexican labor economy seems to assume that some magical person who doesn’t have anything else to do will always be at home to take care of both emergencies and everyday tasks that must get done in a typical household: taking care of young or sick kids, taking the trash out when it comes at 11 a.m., dealing with paperwork at offices that are open to the public only until lunchtime, preparing food for said lunchtime (and breakfast and dinner).

So there are a few choices here, employers: you can pay your workers enough money to make all of that extra time worth it — it has to be enough so that they can hire someone else to do the work they can’t because they’re not home. And while AMLO has done a lot to raise the minimum wage during his tenure, it’s still not anywhere close to what it actually costs to get by unless your basics like housing and food are being provided by somebody else. To attract workers, that worker must be paid enough to support a family of two to three dependents. 

Yet another choice you can make is to provide free childcare, healthcare, food and shelter to everyone who earns under a certain amount — or include these as benefits in addition to an employee’s salary. This especially goes for healthcare.

We also need to continue enforcing Mexico’s already strong labor laws and not allow employers to get away with ignoring or bypassing them. Eliminating the possibility of cheating and corruption on top of that is a pipe dream, I know, but what wonders that would do too!

As Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) President Fran Drescher said in her moving speech last week about the movie industry’s leaders, “They plead poverty…while giving hundreds and millions of dollars to CEOs!” 

This might not be true for the little mom and pop shops — or newspapers — around Mexico, but it could very well be for the Liverpools, Oxxos and Walmarts of the country. They know what to do.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sarahedevries.substack.com.

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