Mexico City poised to adopt jobless insurance

MEXICO CITY — The Federal District (DF), the area that encompasses Mexico City, continues to be in the forefront of progressive social change in Mexico, as the district’s left-wing government has announced plans to set up an unemployment insurance program. And its passage in the Legislative Assembly here seems likely.

Currently, there are no income support programs for unemployed workers in Mexico, as exist in most developed countries such as Canada, the United States and France. In a country where unemployment is high and jobs scarce, those who lose their jobs face destitution and hunger.

Marcelo Ebrard, who heads the DF’s Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) government, said his administration will pay those who lose their jobs 1,500 pesos (US$140) per month for up to six months. Applicants will have to undergo job retraining programs, provided free of charge by the DF government, to qualify for the benefit.

Ebrard said his government will use funds it saved from a recent deal signed with big banks that restructured the DF’s long-term debt to finance the unemployment insurance program.

La Jornada, the popular daily newspaper, said, “The realization of this project would mark, without doubt, a social milestone in the country’s history.”

The DF’s Legislative Assembly will vote on a bill establishing unemployment insurance in December. Given that the PRD and its allies hold a majority of seats, the bill will likely pass.

The far-right National Action Party, in both the DF’s Legislative Assembly and at the national level, is opposing the Ebrard government’s unemployment insurance scheme on grounds that it will increase unemployment. Mexican President Felipe Calderon, a PAN leader, said recently that the DF’s government should be investing in new waterworks projects instead of in measures to help the unemployed.

Ebrard responded by saying that he is following the recommendations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), of which Mexico is a member. The OECD proposes that governments implement unemployment insurance programs, which, it said, can “yield high social returns.”

Alluding to critics, Miron Lince, the DF’s labor minister, said that when it comes to support for big business, such as subsidies or tax write-offs, no one says anything. “When we outline directing resources to the poor, we enter into uncertainty until alerts about risks of the city going bankrupt, as happened with the program for older adults [the universal pension system that the previous administration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador set up for those over 70],” he said.

Already, the DF’s government provides a broad range of social programs, from pensions and economic support for single mothers and poor students to free medical care for the poor. Outside the DF, Mexico is nearly devoid of social programs to combat poverty.

Ebrard took over from Lopez Obrador and Alejandro Encinas. Apart from adding to social programs established by Lopez Obrador and Encinas, Ebrard’s government has implemented other progressive measures since his election in July 2006. It championed allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions and supported the legalization of abortion, taking on Mexico’s powerful Catholic and evangelical churches. Both opposed the two changes, especially the legalization of abortion, organizing street demonstrations and threatening acts of civil disobedience.

The Ebrard government is also undertaking or contemplating other far-reaching measures. It plans to strengthen laws protecting women. It is also considering the legalization of euthanasia, allowing those suffering from painful, terminal illnesses to end their lives in a humane manner.

In a bid to improve air quality and lower greenhouse gases responsible for global warming in one of the world’s most polluted and car congested cities, Ebrard has stopped building roads and is focusing instead on providing more public transportation and promoting bicycle use. Once a month all government ministers, including Ebrard, must ride their bikes to work. Next year, city residents will not be able to drive their cars downtown 10 Saturdays a year.

tpelzer @shaw.ca