MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – At 82, Ernesto García Martínez bags groceries in Soriana supermarket in Mexico City, the capital of Mexico. He doesn’t receive any wages for his work from the store, only the tips that customers give him.
He used to work as a taxi driver and a chauffeur.
“But it’s now dangerous for me because of my age,” he says.
Despite his years of work, he doesn’t have a pension. He and his wife both receive subsidies from the Mexico City government of 1,000 pesos ($80) per month for residents older than 70 in Distrito Federal to buy food and necessities. Their children provide support as well.
But it’s not enough to live on, so García Martínez works for tips at the grocery store.
“I earn more than a minimum salary and sometimes even three times as much,” he says.
The minimum wage in the country is 64 pesos ($5) per day. The tips he earns as a grocery store bagger range from 5 pesos (40 cents) to 20 pesos ($1.60) per client. He says that on two occasions, customers gave him 50 pesos ($4.70).
Because it is not a formal job, García Martínez doesn’t have labor rights or benefits, although to be eligible for the job he had to submit identity documents, a medical certificate and letters of recommendation.
But for García Martínez, that fact that it’s an informal, volunteer position is irrelevant. For him, what’s most important is the opportunity to earn money and, even more valuable, to stay active.
“If I’m in the house, I go downhill,” he says. “So the activity that we have here is healthy for me.”
Stories like García Martínez’s are becoming more typical in Mexico, where the elderly are replacing teenagers as grocery store baggers.
More than 10,000 senior citizens work for tips as grocery baggers at supermarkets in Mexico thanks to agreements with the government to offer them work. The lack of employment opportunities for people older than 60 and a universal pension system have forced many of them back to work in the informal sector. Economic specialists allege that supermarkets are taking advantage of free labor, but supermarket representatives respond that the program enables the elderly to earn money, to feel useful and to stay active.
In Mexico, 10.5 million people are ages 60 and older, and nearly 3.2 million of them still work, according to the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, the government’s statistical agency.
Since 2001, 16,000 people older than 60 have become voluntary grocery store baggers, according to Instituto Nacional de las Personas Adultas Mayores, the national government agency for the welfare of the elderly.
One of INAPAM’s responsibilities is to arrange employment opportunities for the elderly so that they have a source of income. During 2001, it established agreements with supermarket chains to take on people older than 60 as volunteer baggers.
The volunteer role used to fall mainly to 14- and 15-year-olds from lower-income families as a way