Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Beyond Statistics: Informal Employment and Mexico City’s Subway

Written by on . Published in Work in the developing world on , .

I take Mexico City’s subway twice a day. It is normal to hear “150 songs in MP3 format! It has been tested! It is guaranteed! Take it! Take it!”, or to exit the station to see an entire outdoor market has formed, where you can find anything from perfumes to pirated CDs and Mexican candies. Every time I remember the statistic: 29.2% of the Mexican population able to work (at least 14 years old and without disabilities) has an informal job.[1]

Some Statistics

Although Mexico has the world’s 13th highest GDP, a Mexican who earns 2,000 dollars per month is part of the richest 10% of the population, while a family income of 99.60 dollars makes you part of the poorest 10%[2]. It is not surprising that Mexico’s population looks for a job everywhere. The official unemployment rate in Mexico is only 5%, compared to the 23% in Spain.[3] Is this because there are more employment opportunities in my country? Not really.

Mexico’s unemployment insurance is an important part of this statistic. Spain’s insurance gives to its unemployed citizens 70% of their previous salary,[4] while Mexican insurance pays 30 days of minimum wage (62.33 pesos per day, about 4.87 dollars).[5] Spain’s insurance lasts 29 months, Mexico’s only six months.

If a family can live sufficiently with the unemployment insurance they do not have to worry; however, surviving with the amount of money given by Mexico’s unemployment insurance policy is clearly impossible. Here informal employment becomes attractive. The obvious and fastest solution for an unemployed person to earn cash is to sell something or become an entertainer anywhere. Mexican unemployment rate is lower because a family cannot survive with 150 dollars a month (the lowest average family income),[6] and they are forced to seek any alternatives available. They then become employed in Mexico’s informal sector.

A job is a job

If you want to see Mexican reality, that part of Mexico you usually do not know, take the subway: poverty is everywhere on the eleven subway lines. Besides beggars (from little kids to old men), you will see informal workers, some of them selling goods, others “selling” entertainment.

The Seventh Line, the one I usually take, is known as a “workers line”. Most of the passengers are business men and women, mixed with some high school students and working mothers. I was shocked when one day I saw a young man with his shirt full of broken glass entering the subway car.

When the subway started to move, he put his shirt on the floor and lay over the glass, with pain in his face he started to roll over that “bed”. That was his spectacle. When the next station was near, he stopped rolling, rose from the floor, and folded his shirt waiting for the passengers to give him a coin after seeing his “show”.

Most people turned away their faces with indifference, probably thinking it was normal; maybe they had seen this man before. I looked away; I could not resist so much reality, that reality in which hurting yourself is a way of living in the show business.

Hard facts and everyday experiences tell us one thing: Mexico does not need better unemployment insurance; Mexicans need more and better job opportunities. The challenge for the government is how to do it. Beyond statistics, I cannot help asking myself: is rolling over glass even a job?

Juan Pedro Luengas is a member of Global21, a student network of international affairs magazines and a partner of FutureChallenges.

  • [1] Martínez, M. d. (n.d.). Retrieved February 16, 2012, from
  • [2] Hernández Licona, G. (2006). El Desarrollo Económico en México. Distrito Federal: ITAM.
  • [3] Notimex. (n.d.). Excelsior. Retrieved April 11, 2012, from México entre los países con menor desempleo en la OCDE:
  • [4] Spanish Government. Spanish Gobernment Official Site. Retrieved February 16, 2012, from
  • [5] Mexican Government. Portal Ciudadano del Distrito Federal. Retrieved February 16, 2012, from
  • [6] Hernández Licona, G. (2006). El Desarrollo Económico en México. Distrito Federal: ITAM.