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COLUMN ONE : Latin Job Force Hits the Streets : Unable to find steady employment, as many as 50 million Latin Americans work in the underground economy. Countries lose huge tax revenues, but people at least have incomes.


Garcia is what permanent, or organized, street vendors call a torero, literally a bullfighter, because he must move fast. As he hawked purses, his cousin, Victor Hernandez, kept watch at the corner for trucks bearing city officials. Four or five times a day, he warns Garcia of their approach, and Garcia sweeps up his merchandise and hides in a storefront or among the street stalls.

If they are caught, they will have to pay a bribe or risk confiscation of their merchandise by the officials.

Alverde Goya of the Mexican Chamber of Commerce believes that many of the vendors could find jobs if they wanted to in foreign-owned assembly plants along the U.S.-Mexico border. They opt to sell in the streets or out of their homes because they can work their own hours, without bosses or "responsibilities," and they prefer to pay no taxes, Goya said.

He recognizes the difficulties in legalizing a new small business. Despite a government simplification program, business registration still requires 16 bureaucratic steps over a period of about three months, he said. And bureaucrats still take their cut of the pie.

"Although the administrative simplification has been carried out at the upper levels, it changes as the orders filter down. The low-level bureaucrats are the ones who lose income if they don't get bribes. They are defending their jobs. They complicate a bureaucratic process so that you need their 'help' to get out," Goya said.

Vendors say they are on the street out of necessity rather than choice. For Enrique Najera, 44, survival is the objective. He left his minimum-wage job with the Mexican government a year ago when his salary would no long support his wife and four children. He went to sell in the metro until he was evicted from there.

"Like me, many of these people are former policemen and government workers," Najera said over a mound of mittens and hats for sale outside the Pino Suarez metro stop. "One salary does not cover our transportation, food, clothes, rent, electricity and everything. This is where we can solve our family problems--selling."


Economists estimate that as many as 50 million of Latin America's 107 million workers are employed in the underground, or informal, economy. That represents a 25% increase in the last decade. Although economic stagnation has evened out in the region, analysts expect the informal economy to grow sharply as Latin America's labor force increases to 147 million by the end of the century.

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