Mexican informal workers, hit hard by the pandemic, press for more government support
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Sitting next to a fan on a hot, November day, Benito Encinas was trying to help a potential customer track down a lawnmower.
“They didn’t give you a price?” he asked the man.
But no one had what the customer was looking for at a local flea market in the Sonoran capital Hermosillo.
Normally such items are in ample supply. But since the pandemic, fewer people have been going to buy or sell, in part because restocking has become much more difficult.
“It was in March, like the fifteenth,” Encinas said, recollecting the last time he crossed into the United States.
Encinas is a tianguista, that means he sells goods at a flea market. He makes his living buying used goods at U.S. garage sales, and selling them back in Mexico. But most tianguistas haven’t been able to cross to restock since March, when pandemic restrictions went into effect for northbound border crossers. While U.S. citizens have largely been able to cross back and forth without issue, Encinas and his colleagues have been cut off from their supply.
That’s a unique hardship in his business, but many in Mexico’s broader informal economy have had a turbulent time during the pandemic.
“In Mexico before the pandemic, the informal sector was about 56%” of the workforce, said economist Norma Samaniego, who specializes in labor markets.
It’s a diverse group that includes street food vendors, domestic workers, unregistered small businesses and many others. What they share is low pay and few benefits, according to Samaniego.
“The informal sector fell hard,” she said of the impact of early pandemic control measures.
In a recent paper, she estimated that more than 90% of job losses in April were informal positions.
Despite the scale of economic hardship across the country, she said Mexico hasn’t offered much financial assistance to workers and businesses, and that the government could do more.
In mid-October, dozens of tianguistas and other informal workers protested in front of the Congress of Sonora, eventually forcing their way in, as captured by local news outlet Diario Valor.
According to the union representing Sonoran tianguistas, activists have since met with state leaders to discuss their demands, like including financial support for workers in the budget. But there’s been little progress on their demand to be able to cross the border.
And that has Encinas worried.
“We’re going to run out of merchandise, and we’re going to have to close down here,” he said, adding that the majority of his fellow tianguistas are in a similarly tight spot.
A version of this story originally ran in Fronteras on Nov. 30, 2020.
COVID-19 Economy FAQs
Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?
This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.
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India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.
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As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy continues reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.
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