Mexico's lost generation

Enrique Pena Nieto will assume the Presidency of Mexico on the 1 December 2012, a day which will mark the return of his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after 12 years absence.  Their first job:  Mexico’s biggest labour reform in over 40 years.

The legislation, watered down to please PRI’s trade unionists, is expected to relax some of Mexico’s strict labour laws in order to open the doors to foreign investment and boost economic growth; a notion welcomed by Mexico’s many neoliberal economists. But the bill, heavily discussed in the Senate and the Mexican media has been exposed to the interests of all levels of workers, private and public sector alike.  

The government will have us look on the bright side.  We are told that with this legislation, a Mexican part-time worker will no longer work for less than the daily minimum wage of about 60 pesos (£3) a day.  However, this news does not calm the nerves of the Mexican part-time worker who relies on health, housing, redundancy, pension and profit -sharing benefits to offset that meagre minimum wage because these are precisely the benefits which are going to be cut. The bill will make it easier for companies to hire and fire or outsource their employees to smaller firms with fewer responsibilities, thus making it harder for workers to access their full benefits.  As if it wasn’t hard enough already.

Flickr/Photo by Edgar Alberto Domínguez Cataño.  Enrique Pena Nieto at the World Economic Forum on Latin America 2010.

Antonieta, a 44 year old government office assistant summed up the proposed legislation during a large union rally,  "It's possible that there could be more jobs, but at miserable wages, with exploitation of workers.  It would hurt all of us."  And nobody more so than Mexico’s retired population.

Take the case of Carmen, a 71 year old retired primary school teacher who works 6 days a week.  This year Carmen will complete her fiftieth working year and like many of Mexico’s elderly, looks unlikely to call it a day.  “What hope do I have of retiring?”, she retorts.  

Carmen worked for 30 years teaching in the impoverished communities outside Mexico City before taking a job as a public servant so that she could move her elderly mother and children back to her home town in Chiapas.  Four years later, this role came to an end and Carmen took a job in a respectable hotel to tide her over until she reached retirement age.  But 16 years later, Carmen is still working.  

“And what is the point?” she asks me.  I know this question is rhetorical, but it lingers in the air, unanswered, during the large pause as Carmen draws breath and eventually sighs, “I have nothing”.  

How can this be?  I ask myself, that somebody that dedicated 34 years to public service and has a second career in the private sector can end up with nothing.  Not even a home.  

Like many Mexicans, Carmen has rented all of her life.  Her mother once took out a credit to buy the home where they lived but after falling ill to cancer Carmen had to give up work for nearly a year whilst she received treatment.  The hotel where she still works did not  provide employer-sponsored health insurance or sick pay so the hospital bills were left to Carmen’s 23 year old son and pregnant 24 year old daughter.  Understandably, they could not keep up with the payments on her credit and her house was repossessed.  

So Carmen works to pay her rent and ironically support the daughter who once supported her because this single hard working mother is not entitled to benefits.    When I ask about her teacher’s pension Carmen explains that her pension has never been adjusted since her “retirement date” of 1992.  This means that her next door neighbour who retired last year but served exactly the same number of years as a teacher could be receiving up to 5 times the pension that Carmen receives today. This all adds to the household strain which means the grandmother keeps on working. But working until when?

Carmen remains hopeful and continues to petition the government offices to make her home loan available which as a teacher she is automatically entitled to but has never received.  The office always need more paperwork.   “Maybe next year,” she says with a glimmer in her eye.  And I hope she is right.

Enrique Pena Nieto has set an age limit of 74 years and 11 months on state sponsored home loans like Carmen‘s.  But at just 46 years with at least 9 homes under his belt, he is unlikely to fully understand her plight.  He and his antiquated party seem to have little in common with Carmen who, like many Mexicans, is running out of time.

About the author

Tessa Montaña is a Politics and International Studies graduate who has worked in the financial and environmental sectors and currently works as an investigative freelance journalist.