Callused Hands of the Mexico City Streets

Assess the monetary value of a congestion-reducing highway project and you will have to attribute a value to the time that drivers save as a result of the project. Often, the minimum wage is adopted as a rough measure of this “economic value of time.” Since (even in real terms) the minimum wage in Mexico is lower than it is in the US, should we conclude that the average Mexican’s minute is worth less than the average American’s?

Discussing with my landlord one night the reputation that Mexicans hold of Americans, she offhandedly declared that, ‘Americans just don’t know how to work like Mexicans. You see those construction workers on the street here, strong men, carrying material equal to their own weight… Americans aren’t strong like that.’ She’s right that, with labor relatively cheaper than capital in Mexico compared to in the US, comparatively labor-intensive methods of production tend to be employed here. To build on my landlord’s observation (for how correct or incorrect it might be), we might say that Mexicans are generally less productive than Americans—one reason why lower pay (which, holding all else constant, is theoretically proportional to productivity) is awarded for more arduous labor.

In sum, the lower value of time in Mexico is highly visible, evidenced in the relatively labor-intensive work and the proliferation of low-profit businesses. To give several day-to-day examples:

  • Walk to most any major intersection, and you will be sure to find a cluster of makeshift stalls where venders hawk pirated CDs and DVDs, tacos and barbacoa, candy, batteries, or trinkets. Board the subway, and venders will pass through the car chanting what he or (equally often) she has to offer: frequently the same items that you just passed up above ground. Other ambulantes take advantage of vehicle traffic and red lights to sell items to drivers from boxes strapped around their neck, wash car windows, or perform circus acts. Just based on casual observation, these workers appear highly unproductive, making very few sales relative to the amount of time, and often effort, spent hawking.1155
  • At 7 in the morning, I wake to the sound of government-employed street sweepers at work—not the sound of machinery, but rather twigs against pavement. Teams of these workers, armed with homemade brooms and metal barrels mounted on rolling carts, are responsible for the roads; while homeowners—or more common in my upper-middle-class area, hired help—fastidiously wash and sweep their patch of sidewalk each morning.1154
  • In all but the most affluent or poor of neighborhoods, the lineup of storefronts is often somewhat reminiscent of commerce in turn-of-the-20th-century US cities: owner-operated, small-scale retail densely clustered in mixed-use storefronts. For instance, a bare-bones taquería might neighbor an auto-repair shop, which abuts an up-scale coffee or pastry shop. Surrounding the zocalo, the main city plaza, small shops tend to cluster by industry: blocks are de facto dedicated to dubious gold resellers, colorful dress shops, or musty used-book stores. The owner-operators of these stores can be invariably found sitting at the front chatting, reading, or staring out into the street waiting for the rare customer. The omnipresence of low-value-added, labor-intensive industry, though beginning to wane in the face of competition from big-box stores, surely could not sustain so many individuals’ livelihoods were the cost of living (i.e. required profits) much higher.

The lower value of time has major implications on more general social dynamics in Mexico City. The fact that such a large share of the population lives at the margin restricts the already limited influence of the city government over commerce. Many of the informal industries emerge with the government’s tacit approval, in large part because they significantly reduce unemployment. Rather than aiming to eliminate them altogether, local governments work to formalize these workers to whatever degree possible so as to maintain some degree of control over their activities. For instance, a government pamphlet that I recently picked up touted its efforts to corral street venders into what it has labeled an “artisanal” market, purportedly “dignifying their trade” (while also removing them from surrounding parks and streets).

But even these efforts are of limited efficacy. Reforma, one of the main local dailies, has been running a series of articles this week on informal vendors “capturing” the parks, and the environmental havoc that they wreak. Laments one neighbor, ‘You can’t even walk and there are also many robberies, indigents, no, no, it’s a pigsty! This park isn’t what it used to be.’[1]  In fact, included among the 146 recommendations that Rudy Giuliani presented in 2003 for reducing Mexico City’s rampant crime was the reduction of the number of informal street vendors. But with an estimated 40% of the city’s residents resorting to the informal sector to eek out a living, it is neither politically, morally, nor practically feasible to curb the number of such workers.

Because they are able to live on such low profits, many of such industries that exist here could not exist in the US, or at least not at the scale that they do here. The services that some of these industries provide are crucial to the city’s basic functioning.

Consider the example of garbage separation, an issue of monumental proportions in a city of this scale. Teams of five can often be found around an idling garbage truck blaring salsa beats, separating what residents have neglected to sort themselves. These teams often include members who are not formal public employees, but who help separate recyclables that can be salvaged for revenue that is then distributed among the crew.[2]

Labor-intensive private initiatives serve a critical role in waste collection even before the separation of trash. In the course of my very brief visit to the vast, 2 million-resident colonia popular (slum) of Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, I bumped into one of the famed horse-drawn trash carts, which service areas of the city not covered by municipal authorities.

1157 The microbuses that I have mentioned in previous posts are another example of how labor-intensive, low-profit industry keeps the city running.[3] These individually owned buses are arguably to Mexico City what taxis are to New York (though there are taxis aplenty here, too), with supply exceeding demand during off-peak hours. Fitting only about 25 passengers per bus (though a few more can be fit during rush hour dangling out of the side doors), they also operate at low economies of scale (more drivers/buses per passenger than a standard bus system). Yet, because each vehicle operates for relatively lower profits than a formal bus system, the microbuses service areas that would not otherwise be covered were more passengers required per route—namely, the numerous peripheral shantytowns, often physically inaccessible to the city’s formal bus system due to their steep and narrow streets. Vehicle ownership is remarkably low in these areas, certainly to some degree because the microbuses offer an affordable alternative to a private vehicle.

As these last two examples illustrate, while the ubiquity of low-profit, labor-intensive work is itself an indication of onerous poverty, the services that are provided because of these jobs are often central to the livelihoods of the city’s poor. In this sense, wide-scale poverty seems to reduce the severity of poverty itself.

[1] “Arman su ‘tianguis’ en Parque México,” Reforma (10/9/2012).

[2] Medina, Martin. "Informal Recycling and Collection of Solid Wastes in Developing Countries: Issues and Opportunities." (July, 1997).

[3] This section is based on Cervero, “The Transit Metropolis” and Molina and Molina, “Air Quality in the Mexico Megacity: An Integrated Assessment”