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The Nation

In Mexico, young and thin are often job requirements

Ads, even for U.S. firms, ignore anti-bias laws and seek a youthful ideal.

October 23, 2006|Marla Dickerson and Meredith Mandell | Special to The Times

MEXICO CITY — When Michigan-based automotive supplier Lear Corp. needed a secretary for its office in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, it placed a classified ad seeking a "female ... aged 20 to 28 ... preferably single ... with excellent presentation."

And to ensure that it got the right candidate, Lear asked applicants to include a recent photo with their resumes.

In the United States, that ad might draw howls of protest and trigger lawsuits and hefty fines. But in Mexico, where jobs are scarce and enforcement of anti-discrimination laws is all but nonexistent, employers routinely select staff on criteria more appropriate to a beauty contest.

Job seekers who are considered too old, too chunky or too dark are screened out by companies that sometimes specify the ideal candidate's marital status, height, weight, tone of voice, even the part of town in which the person should reside.

What is less known is that many American corporations -- including Coca-Cola, Pepsi Bottling and Shell Oil -- are engaging in hiring practices that appear to violate their fair-employment policies in the U.S.

They include companies that trumpet their diversity initiatives north of the border, including top-drawer U.S. law firm Baker & McKenzie, and should be familiar with Mexican laws prohibiting discrimination.

"Why are so many of them not complying with the same standards they have to comply with in the United States? Because they can get away with it," said Los Angeles-based attorney Gloria Allred, known for battling discrimination.

When contacted by The Times, U.S. companies said they did not know about the ads or blamed them on local managers or third parties.

Lear executives in the U.S. said they weren't aware of the Mexican job posting. Provided a copy, spokeswoman Andrea Puchalsky later issued a statement declaring that the ad was not in keeping with Lear's equal-employment policies and that references to gender, age and similar criteria would be removed.

"Unfortunately, it is very difficult for a global organization ... to closely monitor the activities of our representatives in all regions of the world," Puchalsky said.

Mexico's constitution and federal labor code prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, ethnicity, religion, marital status, health and other factors. But legal experts say Mexicans rarely complain to authorities or file employment discrimination lawsuits, partly because seeking redress is a lengthy and expensive process.

Wilma Ramirez Santiago, deputy director of the complaints unit of the National Council to Prevent Discrimination, said the Mexican public had grown so used to discriminatory hiring practices that most people were resigned to them.

Her federal agency was set up in 2003 to investigate discrimination complaints and raise awareness, but it has no power to prosecute scofflaws, and the government is cutting its 2007 budget 4%.

"We're a clearly discriminatory society, but no one wants to accept it," said Ramirez, who added that her organization would like to see a crackdown on employment classifieds.

That would make Mexico a pioneer in Latin America, where such ads are ubiquitous.

Some companies equate youth with higher productivity and lower costs in terms of salaries and healthcare.

Many male employers view single, attractive females as desirable -- until they get married and have children. Then they mean costly pregnancy leave, children-related absences and turnover.

Married men often are seen as stable and less likely to be homosexual, still a major taboo. Good looks and fair skin are prized.

"They don't contract you if you don't have a pretty face or a pretty body," said Patricia Tellez, a plump lawyer who was among hundreds of anxious hopefuls packing a recent job fair in Tlajomulco, not far from Guadalajara.

Tellez said a recruiter at one table told her they preferred a man to a fill a debt-collector position for which she had applied. The 29-year-old lives with her parents and supports herself selling secondhand clothing in a flea market.

Thousands of underemployed Mexicans like Tellez represent a waste of human capital that is hurting the nation's competitiveness.

"You have very intelligent people forced to clean windshields and park cars," said Florencia Pena, a professor at Mexico City's National School of Anthropology and History who has studied employment discrimination. "That is very costly for the culture and for the country."

Mexican President-elect Felipe Calderon has cited "equal opportunity" as one of the main platforms of his development plan.

Some employment classifieds cite bodily measurements with the breezy specificity of a dating service. An ad on one of Mexico's largest online job sites sought a man aged 25 to 30 to work in Mexico City.

The candidate must stand at least 5 feet 9 inches tall, weigh 154 to 176 pounds and be possessed of a "good presentation."

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