A government policy and social collaboration strategy to support workers living day to day

July 14, 2020

In response to the emergency, we urgently need to take measures as soon as possible to preserve formal jobs and provide income to people and families that lose their source of income due to the lockdown measures adopted.

Note: This blog is part of Lustig, N. & Tommasi, M. (2020). El COVID-19 y la protección social de los grupos pobres y vulnerables. UNDP. (Forthcoming)

In Mexico, many workers support their families based on what they earn each day. They are not protected by social security, or indeed by any type of social protection, and have only their savings and the support of their families.

They work as informal employees in micro businesses such as markets, street stalls, repair shops, small stores and craft workshops. Workers who rely on mobile apps, such as drivers for delivery and ridesharing services, are also in this situation.

Another group is comprised of non-salaried or self-employed workers who provide services or sell products in the street and work directly for consumers who hire them for a day or for a specific job or who come to them sporadically. This group includes many occupations such as independent contractors, IT workers, construction workers, live-out domestic workers, mariachis and musicians, shoeshiners, taxi drivers and other transportation operators, cleaners, dressmakers and seamstresses, hairdressers, and so on.

A subset of group two sells food on their doorstop, either homemade or manufactured (e.g. soda, chips, etc.). This is especially common in working-class neighborhoods. Part of their demand comes from other homes in the same neighborhoods and people that work in the area, many of whom have stopped working, reducing sales for these family businesses.

A third group is salaried workers who work on an informal basis for formal establishments and organizations, including public institutions. They can be on the payroll or are hired as freelancers, on a piece-rate basis or with short one-month or three-month contracts. They can be fired at will at no cost to the company.

The vast majority do not earn enough to save for emergencies or things like illness, unemployment, accidents, death, or measures such as the ones currently in place to close businesses and implement social distancing. These people fall into even greater poverty, lose the few assets they have been able to acquire like domestic appliances and electronic devices, face eviction, having their energy or water supply cut off, being denied waste collection services, having their businesses closed, etc.

These precarious conditions are due to the insufficient creation of protected jobs due to structural failures in the economy, precarious employment, and the persistence of traditional occupations like street musicians, circus performers, craftspersons, and sex workers.

The aim of this document is to identify social and government policies that can help these millions of workers to overcome the emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which will cause footfall in public spaces to drop for several months. It is conceivable that these activities outside of the home will be curtailed for at least the next three months, perhaps even disappearing in future.

In response to the emergency, we urgently need to take measures as soon as possible to preserve formal jobs and provide income to people and families that lose their source of income due to the lockdown measures adopted.

Possible actions for governments

Below are five groups of actions that could be taken by the three levels of government. The intention is not to implement all of them, they are merely suggested as options.

Temporary employment program

The pandemic will devastate certain occupations, but it will also generate new requirements as people deal with the pandemic. One idea would be to find, train and pay a decent wage to people who could:

  1. Support the most vulnerable members of society (elderly persons, people with chronic illnesses, disabled people, etc.) who cannot leave their homes and therefore require support, by bringing them food, medicine and water.
  2. Ensure compliance with social distancing measures by talking with people who aren't following the rules and ordering them go back home if they go out without a valid reason.
  3. Sanitize public spaces, public transport, public toilets, street markets, convenience stores and supermarkets.
  4. Assist in monitoring and preventing vandalism, violence, and looting.
  5. Collaborate with healthcare workers in the third phase of the emergency: orderlies, receptionists, cleaning clinics and hospitals, assisting with patient hygiene, storage and control of consumables, preparing food, registration and IT tasks, etc.
  6. Transport patients, medicines, and health supplies, driving doctors to home visits, etc.
  7. Prepare food for patients at temporary medical facilities, or even for healthcare personnel themselves.
  8. Prepare food, manage community food kitchens, and distribute prepared food and pantry items to groups who have lost their incomes, ensuring hygiene measures are followed at all times.
  9. Ramp up employment in companies that need to increase production of supplies needed for the emergency: masks, ventilators, gloves, cleaning supplies, isolation modules, protective clothing for healthcare workers, and so on.
  10. Examine the possibility of some of these products being manufactured in people's homes to generate income.
  11. Due to the increased risk of domestic violence during lockdown and given the high levels of overcrowding in Mexico, a home assistance program could be developed and run by volunteers who could provide entertainment, offer fun and cultural activities and give advice on harmonious family living to families in lockdown. Visitors would of course need to be healthy, observe strict healthcare protocols and only remain in the home for a certain amount of time (e.g. 30 minutes to 1 hour). The same framework could be applied when temporary hospitals or medical centers are set up in gymnasiums, schools, warehouses, etc. and where conditions could lead to episodes of violence, especially where infected people are alert and able to move around. If this is deemed unduly complicated or risky, the program could be implemented at a distance through ad hoc platforms containing direct and subliminal messages of love, respect, compassion, kindness and solidarity (proposal from Jorge Máttar at Centro Tepoztlán).

The advantage of creating temporary jobs is that those that need them will be the people who apply, which eliminates the need to create a register of people and families at risk of losing their income due to the public health emergency.

Existing federal government programs to support elderly and disabled people generally target populations that cannot easily be incorporated into temporary work tasks.

Some of these proposals for the temporary employment program in response to the public health emergency could of course be managed by volunteers, but it would be a huge achievement if public resources could be used to pay properly trained personnel to carry out these tasks, with the proper protection to prevent infection and following defined protocols. This would mean reallocating certain government budgetary items, and postponing less urgent investments and actions.

Another possibility is to create social funds managed transparently and securely by social committees or civil and community organizations at the municipal, state and federal level. These funds could then be paid into by anyone wishing to donate to a temporary employment program.

Other necessary activities that have fallen by the wayside due to a lack of resources but which could generate temporary jobs could also be considered, such as repairing public and private facilities, repairing potholes on currently empty streets, and maintaining public transport.

2. Temporary basic income

The three levels of government could come to an agreement to provide basic income over a period of three months to workers at risk of losing their income due to the pandemic.

The funds could be raised by redirecting some resources from existing budgets for programs or investments that could be postponed until after the pandemic at the municipal, state and federal levels, or, alternatively, by creating collective funds like those envisaged for temporary employment actions.

The problem with this action would be creating a register of people that genuinely require a temporary basic income. To do this, door-to-door census takers (Servidores de la Nación) could visit communities and neighborhoods, applying a systematic method to identify families living hand to mouth. Registers from other programs such as the Becas Benito Juárez scholarships program could be used to identify families in emergency situations following loss of income.

3. Extending unemployment benefits

Allocating a temporary unemployment payment to workers employed by small and micro businesses that cannot afford to retain their employees during the pandemic could also be considered. This payment would be granted based on a guarantee issued by the micro businesses to their employees.

4. Reducing employment costs

Historically, Mexico has made the error of burdening employers with high employment costs, such as social security and payments into the housing fund, and the states have collected additional taxes based on companies’ payroll. This increases the cost of hiring staff and is a disadvantage to employers.

The current public health emergency is an opportunity to reduce these costs by replacing revenue from them with revenue from other sources, for example by updating property taxes or other general taxes.

In the midst of this public health emergency, companies’ labor costs should be reduced or least deferred.

Many countries are deferring labor costs for companies that commit to continue paying their employees.

5. Credit, extensions and grace periods for loans or payments for permits, licenses and taxes

As has already been suggested by some of the country's mayors, in addition to granting small loans to micro businesses, extensions and grace periods could be granted for existing loans, debts could be written off, permits renewed for street markets and market stalls, and time limits for paying license renewal fees (El Financiero, 03/20/20), property taxes or water could be extended at no cost.

Part of the demand from municipal governments for office supplies, cleaning supplies, food, equipment repair and facility maintenance could be funneled to small local providers who could even come together to handle large orders. 

Activities at the community level

Protecting the income of the groups mentioned is not only a job for government authorities, it is a responsibility we all share, one that requires us to come up with creative solutions to help others and their families in times of economic difficulty so that they can face the pandemic without major risks to their income.

Some of us will be able to help a lot, others will do what they can on a smaller scale. Each individual must find their own way to contribute in line with their own circumstances. Perhaps we can even come together to organize ways of making a difference.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Avoid laying off employees. Ask anyone with employees in their businesses or even homes to avoid laying them off, even if these employees need to temporarily quarantine themselves and miss work.
  2. Give bigger tips to those still providing us with services: waiters, gas station attendants, baggers in grocery stores, taxi drivers, waste collectors, food, gas and water delivery drivers, gardeners, and so on. 
  3. Offer advance payment to people that provide personal services such as hairdressers, teachers, trainers, shoe shiners, massage therapists, laundry workers, cleaners, and so on (proposal from Idelfonso Guajardo).
  4. Hire construction workers for maintenance work such as waterproofing, painting, wood repair, plumbing, electrical work, etc. (proposal from Idelfonso Guajardo).
  5. Visit small individually owned stores and family-operated businesses to purchase basic food items, and market stalls and semi-permanent establishments to purchase prepared foods. 
  6. Neighborhoods or districts could come together to organize collective buying of prepared food items from their usual vendors, perhaps agreeing to pay them in advance for future purchases.
  7. Offer online services. Workers can give online yoga, languages, dance, history, fitness, computing, painting, crafts or vegetable growing classes, tell stories, provide medical consultations, etc. and request contributions via PayPal.

These are just some of the many possible proposals that aim to reduce the disastrous economic impact that many individuals and families will face because of the need for social distancing, which aims to keep the effects of the pandemic to manageable levels to avoid overloading the national health system.