Julio Don Juan makes $400 a month at a noisy, cramped Mexico City call center. Without a raise in three years, he says he had to pull his 7-year-old son out of a special-needs school he can no longer afford.
In some places he might seek another job. Not in Mexico, where wages after inflation have risen at an annual pace of 0.4 percent since 2005 — worse than other nations in the region including Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay, according to the International Labour Organization. Close to a third of Mexicans toil in the informal economy without steady income. Julio Don Juan says many would envy him.
The cheap labor that is helping Mexico surpass China as a low-cost supplier of manufacturing goods to the U.S. — and lured companies including Nissan Motor Co. (7201) — has restrained progress for many of the country’s 112 million citizens. While Enrique Pena Nieto, the front-runner in polls to capture the July 1 presidential vote, has said wages are too low, whoever wins confronts the challenge of boosting workers’ incomes but not so much that assembly lines leave for other markets.
“The trick isn’t only to pay better salaries, it’s to make raises more sustainable,” said Sergio Luna, chief economist at Citigroup Inc.’s Banamex unit in Mexico City. “We have to be more productive, but it won’t be easy because it implies changing the status quo.”
Mexico’s low wages, cheap peso and surging auto shipments to the U.S. — which buys 80 percent of its exports — have increased manufacturing competitiveness during the past decade as labor costs in China and Japan have risen.
This has put Mexico’s economy on a sounder footing than Brazil’s to weather a prolonged global downturn. After trailing growth in Latin America’s biggest economy during the past decade — and watching as a commodities boom allowed Brazil to increase wages an annual average 3.4 percent above inflation from 2005 to 2011 — Mexico is poised to outperform Brazil for the second consecutive year.
President Felipe Calderon’s government forecasts gross domestic product will expand 3.5 percent this year and says exports will probably surpass a 2011 record of $350 billion. By contrast, Brazil will grow around 2.5 percent, according to a central bank survey of economists this month.
“A changing of the guard is slowly but surely taking place,” Nomura Holdings Inc. (8604) analysts wrote in a May report. “Ten years from now, we are confident that Mexico will likely be seen as having become the most dynamic economy in the region.”
Low wages aren’t Mexico’s only attraction: Inflation that reached 180 percent in 1988 has been kept under control by a central bank that since January 2010 has been under the stewardship of Agustin Carstens. The former deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund has kept the benchmark rate at 4.5 percent since taking office, helping to fuel a rally in government bonds.
Investors also benefit from laws that limit the government deficit and trade accords with more than 30 nations, including the North American Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and Canada. Mexico also offers savings for companies that want to be closer to American consumers, after a tripling of oil prices in the past decade raised transportation costs for Asian manufacturers.
Nissan, Japan’s second-largest automaker, shifted production of low-cost cars to Thailand and Mexico in recent years to counter losses as the yen appreciated, while Mexico’s peso slumped 18 percent in the past six years against the U.S. dollar. The company’s Mexican output hit a record 607,087 cars and light-duty trucks last year, rising 20 percent from 2010.
The latest company to expand operations is Plantronics Inc. (PLT) (PLT), which this month announced a $30 million investment after closing its plant in China as wages began rising there, said Cesar Lopez Ramos, the company’s Mexico legal representative.
Mexico has proven more attractive for the Santa Cruz, California-based headset maker because of its steady wages and “human capital that is more developed and capable of not only making products but innovating,” Lopez Ramos said in a telephone interview from Tijuana.
Some Mexicans criticize Calderon’s National Action Party, or PAN, for not spreading the benefits of economic stability more widely during 12 years of rule. In the absence of a stronger domestic market, jobs remain heavily dependent on U.S. consumers and foreign-operated assembly plants, known as maquiladoras. Unemployment, currently at 4.9 percent, has been more than double a 2000 low of 2.2 percent since 2009.
“We’re scraping by,” said Julio Don Juan, 37, the call- center worker. “Because costs keep rising, I’m actually getting a pay cut each year, rather than a raise.” He lives with his parents, who help him care for his son.
Economy Minister Bruno Ferrari says that low inflation and expanded social programs have reduced poverty during the past dozen years and stemmed declines in purchasing power from previous decades, he told reporters May 8 in Mexico City. The share of Mexicans suffering from food poverty — lack of access to healthy, nutritious meals — fell to 19 percent in 2010 from 24 percent in 2000, according to government data.
A press official from the Mexican finance ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Partly as a result of muted wage growth, Mexico’s per- capita GDP has risen 48 percent since 1999 on a purchasing- power-parity basis, the least among Latin America’s seven biggest economies, according to the IMF. By comparison, Venezuela climbed 51 percent, Brazil increased 73 percent and Peru more than doubled.
The lack of opportunities has spurred an exodus of 12 million Mexicans to the U.S. in the past four decades, more than half illegally, according to a study published in April by the Washington-based Pew Research Center. While net migration dropped to zero between 2005 and 2010, and some Mexican immigrants may be returning home because of the weak U.S. job market, departures northward could resume if the U.S. expansion picks up, Pew said.
“We need to make up for time lost over the past four or five years in the area of employment and salaries,” former President Vicente Fox, of Calderon’s PAN party, said in a May 2 interview in Mexico City. “The challenge for the next government is very big.”
Dissatisfaction with the economy is propelling Pena Nieto’s bid to return his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to power for the first time since Fox ended its 71-year reign in 2000. The 45-year-old former governor of Mexico state had 37.2 percent support in a June 8-10 poll by Consulta Mitofsky, compared with 25.1 percent for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who narrowly lost to Calderon in 2006, and 21 percent for Josefina Vazquez Mota of the PAN.
If elected, Pena Nieto says he’ll raise salaries gradually, by improving productivity. To do so, he promises to support legislation making it easier to hire and fire workers, luring more companies into the formal economy where they can take out loans more easily and make investments. He also favors ending state-run Petroleos Mexicanos’ monopoly; revenue for Latin America’s largest oil producer funds about a third of Mexico’s public budget.
“In no way are we willing to sustain Mexico’s competitiveness through low salaries, nor can we raise salaries artificially through populist measures,” Luis Videgaray, Pena Nieto’s campaign manager and his finance chief when the candidate was governor, said in a May 30 interview. “The only way to increase productivity is through reforms.”
Pena Nieto’s rivals say he isn’t capable of bringing about the change he promises and returning the PRI to power would reignite corruption that blossomed under its previous rule.
Boosting Mexico’s productivity won’t be easy, given the poor performance of the country’s schools and the size of its underground economy, which the government says employs 29 percent of the workforce.
The nation’s education system ranks last out of 34 countries for enrolled high school-age students, behind regional rivals Chile, Argentina and Brazil, according to a 2011 study by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The study included non-OECD members.
Improving education and generating better-paying jobs may also help the next government turn the tide in the battle against the nation’s drug cartels. A bloody turf war between rival gangs has claimed more than 47,000 lives since Calderon took office in 2006 and the government estimates that the drug war shaves 1.2 percentage points off economic output annually.
Delphi Automotive Plc (DLPH) (DLPH), the former parts unit of General Motors Co. (GM) (GM), has been addressing the skilled-labor shortage by training engineering students at its factories in the border city of Ciudad Juarez. About half of the Troy, Michigan-based company’s global workforce of 101,000 is employed in its 46 Mexico plants, compared with less than 30 percent in China.
While wages for some engineering jobs are rising, Delphi isn’t concerned that salaries will spike anytime soon, said Enrique Calvillo, the company’s human-resources manager in Mexico.
“We are always monitoring this, and we don’t see the possibility of an extreme boom in the next two or three years,” he said in a telephone interview from Ciudad Juarez.
That’s bad news for Antonio Chavero, who makes less than $1,000 a month as an engineering supervisor with three decades of experience in the car industry and who works at a parts plant in the central state of Queretaro. While he does metalwork in his basement to supplement his income and support his daughter, who is a teenage mother, his family still doesn’t earn enough to eat meat more than once a week, he said.
“I supervise 15 workers,” Chavero said. “I should be making more money.”