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Mexican informal workers, hit hard by the pandemic, press for more government support

Murphy Woodhouse Dec 31, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace Morning Report
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Nearly a year before the first cases were confirmed in Sonora, Benito Encinas' teenage son, Emilio, helps him unload merchandise largely purchased at Arizona yard sales. Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
COVID-19

Mexican informal workers, hit hard by the pandemic, press for more government support

Murphy Woodhouse Dec 31, 2020
Nearly a year before the first cases were confirmed in Sonora, Benito Encinas' teenage son, Emilio, helps him unload merchandise largely purchased at Arizona yard sales. Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
HTML EMBED:
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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. 

On a weekday in November, the Héctor Espino Tianguis was almost empty.
On a weekday in November, the Héctor Espino Tianguis was almost empty. (Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ)

“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. 

Benito Encinas has a shop at the Héctor Espino Tianguis. With the ongoing pandemic and border restrictions, his industry has been hit hard.
Benito Encinas has a shop at the Héctor Espino Tianguis. With the ongoing pandemic and border restrictions, his industry has been hit hard. (Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ)

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

What are the details of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief plan?

The $1.9 trillion plan would aim to speed up the vaccine rollout and provide financial help to individuals, states and local governments and businesses. Called the “American Rescue Plan,” the legislative proposal would meet Biden’s goal of administering 100 million vaccines by the 100th day of his administration, while advancing his objective of reopening most schools by the spring. It would also include $1,400 checks for most Americans. Get the rest of the specifics here.

What kind of help can small businesses get right now?

A new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans recently became available for pandemic-ravaged businesses. These loans don’t have to be paid back if rules are met. Right now, loans are open for first-time applicants. And the application has to go through community banking organizations — no big banks, for now, at least. This rollout is designed to help business owners who couldn’t get a PPP loan before.

What does the hiring situation in the U.S. look like as we enter the new year?

New data on job openings and postings provide a glimpse of what to expect in the job market in the coming weeks and months. This time of year typically sees a spike in hiring and job-search activity, says Jill Chapman with Insperity, a recruiting services firm. But that kind of optimistic planning for the future isn’t really the vibe these days. Job postings have been lagging on the job search site Indeed. Listings were down about 11% in December compared to a year earlier.

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