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A face among Mexico's 14 million informal workers

February 15, 2012 |  6:41 pm

Street vendor mexico

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- She sits on a plastic stool patting blue-green corn between her palms in front of a portable charcoal grill on a street corner in this city’s dense and noisy downtown.

Lilia Dorantes, who sells the stuffed maize patties known as tlacoyos, works around the corner from a newspaper vendor, a fruit vendor, a pirated-DVD vendor and a vendor who sells dolls dressed as Mexican marines and federal police.

The street vendors belong to an army of off-the-book workers who now make up a record 14 million Mexicans pumping money into the informal economy, the national statistics institute reported last  week.

The number of informal workers in Mexico has increased by 1.6 million since 2010, the statistics agency reported. Overall, informal laborers make up nearly a third of all those employed in Mexico.

Although the informal market, drug money-laundering and remittances from Mexican workers in the United States all help keep the economy afloat, Mexico lost $501 billion between 2000 and 2009 to what are called illicit financial outflows — money circulating through Mexico but not going toward infrastructure, healthcare or education, according to a January report by Global Financial Integrity.

"That is money that the Mexican government could have used to improve the lifestyle and quality of living for the average Mexican," said economist Sarah Freitas at the Washington-based group, which estimates that the underground economy in Mexico accounted for more than 35% of the nation's gross domestic product in 2010.

But informal workers have little to no safety nets to fall back on in case of emergencies and can remain off the books their entire lives.

"What happens when I get sick? Well, with whatever I have saved up...," Dorantes said, trailing off and swatting away at her charcoal so that it would keep burning.

Dorantes, 39, said she makes about 300 pesos a day, or about $23, sharing the approximation of her profits hesitantly. In Mexico City, the information can be tempting to would-be robbers or burglars.

Vendors are believed to pay a daily or weekly tax to powerful street "leaders" who oversee independent vendor associations or neighborhood groups with revolutionary-sounding names.

Dorantes said she pays about $10 a week to her leader to operate on a downtown sidewalk. Her mother sold tlacoyos for about 20 years in Mexico City's Chinatown, she said. In 2007, after Mayor Marcelo Ebrard's administration negotiated with vendor groups to remove them from the streets of the historic center, Dorantes and her tlacoyo operation simply picked up and moved a few blocks away.

Dorantes said she's growing tired of her four-hour round-trip daily commute from a pueblo just outside Toluca, the capital of the neighboring state. She has a small daughter and a daughter entering high school and would like to be nearer to them, maybe by setting up a tlacoyo stand outside her door.

"I would like to have a legal place," she said, patting more maize together. "The difference here is, no one bosses me around."

For the record, 8:36 p.m. Feb. 21: A previous version of this post said Mexico lost an average of $50 billion in the last decade to what are called illicit financial outflows — money circulating through Mexico but not going toward infrastructure, healthcare or education, according to a January report by Global Financial Integrity. Mexico lost $501 billion between 2000 and 2009, according to the Global Financial Integrity report, which estimates that the underground economy in Mexico accounted for more than 35% of the nation's gross domestic product in 2010.

ALSO:

Young and desperate for a job in Mexico

Internal migration flows below the radar in Mexico

Money laundering, tax evasion suck billions from Mexican economy

-- Daniel Hernandez

Photo: Lilia Dorantes, right, sells tlacoyos in downtown Mexico City, one of 14 million informal workers operating in Mexico, new data show. Credit: Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles Times

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