December 2021

By Gabriel Sánchez Zinny

About 70% of jobs in Latin America are informal. The data, released in a recent study by the International Labor Organization, is overwhelming. This is the reality for millions of Latin Americans who are immersed in the difficulties of informal employment, people who cannot save for retirement, nor do they have maternity or sick leave, and they are a long way from having any kind of health coverage. In other words, they cannot exercise their most basic labor rights.

It is imperative that we put the quality employment debate at the forefront of the public policy agenda in Latin America, especially after COVID-19, which has increased poverty and informality in the region.

As I comment throughout my recent book Sin trabajo: el empleo en América Latina entre la pobreza, la educación, el cambio tecnológico y la pandemia this is an unpopular topic, with limited evidence, that seems to be ignored. Research and publications abound on and how technology is impacting new professions, how the pandemic is transforming entire sectors, incorporating a more hybrid, remote and flexible work modality, which already existed in most developed countries.

However, there is very little debate about work today, the reality of so many Latin Americans without quality employment in which technology, far from bringing an opportunity, aggravates their situation. I wonder why we are not talking about the millions of adults who fail to finish secondary school or the fact that, in most countries in the region, those who do manage to finish are half of those who attended primary school. Nor are we talking about university graduates, who represent a minority in the region, and that there are few initiatives to expand access and increase graduation rates.

Nonetheless, we continue to debate the lack of professional training, an issue that is frequently repeated among academics and politicians during meetings and conferences on the future of work. A proposal that, generally, has narrow scope and is linked to labor demands.

We have to start talking about the informality that affects more than half of Latin Americans and that, perhaps, generating quality employment is the best way to train and re-educate those adults who have not had the opportunity to complete their education formal, in addition to the benefits of having a job in and of themselves.

Having the necessary information is the first step to be able to think and design effective public policies whose effects can be rigorously measured. Next, we need real numbers that reflect how many citizens have been able to get a job or improve their situation, how many have managed to enter the formal sector from informality, and how many have found a job after receiving training. Setting aside references to the impact of public policies as a politically correct issue, to give way to the concrete measurement of the results of these policies and initiatives.

In the book we comment and analyze the state of welfare in the region, and the growing welfare programs that exist in many countries. It is key that we dare to talk about the best social policies and wonder why, despite this expansion, poverty does not seem to decrease nor does formal employment grow. Isn't employment the best social policy to reduce poverty? Latin America needs to improve its social policies because it is one of the most unequal regions in the world: income inequality is tragically notorious, but it is even worse in education, access to health, security, and peace.

We have to face this inequality by defining public policies and public-private work to reduce it; It is the only way for all Latin Americans to have equal opportunities. For this, quality employment is a priority.