Mama, they shrunk the workday
The rest of the world must have been napping decades ago when Mexico gave up the siesta that launched a thousand cartoons: all those mustached snoozers with sombreros tilted against the sun.Skip to next paragraph
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Here everybody knows that many Mexicans, far from snoozing, have such long workdays that the government has demanded a drastic shrinkage by today, April 1, to save both time and electricity.
The classic siesta - lunch and a little rest at home - was killed years ago by an accelerated pace of living and the lengthening distances between home and workplace, along with ever heavier traffic.
But there is still the three-hour comida, or midday meal (calling it a "lunch" doesn't do it justice), followed by more work - often past 9 or 10 at night for office staff.
And for women - who maintain most of the responsibility for home and family in this macho society - the day-and-night work schedule can be especially hard. But now, for all those women trundling home in crammed buses on dark streets when their children should already be in bed, help is on the way.
By presidential order, the new schedule has public offices opening at 7 a.m. and closing for the day no later than 6 p.m. The impetus for the change is a government austerity program and a desire to promote efficiency. But officials insist another objective is to give workers more time to be at home and for such pursuits as study and self-improvement.
Not everyone agrees the new measure will be a plus for workers - men or women.
"The fact that this change was imposed without dialogue will actually be counterproductive from the productivity perspective," says Alejandra Barrales, secretary-general of Mexico's flight-attendants union, ASSA. Claiming the measure reflects a paternalistic view toward labor, she adds: "Productivity will increase when workers are satisfied, and satisfaction includes consultation" on issues as central as work hours.
Working to bosses' rhythm
For decades the government machinery has made a national norm of the long day organized around the comida . Mexican law stipulates an eight-hour workday, but workers follow their bosses' rhythm, so the midday pause became theirs, too.
But as women have moved into the work force and slowly up the managerial ladder, the winds of change have waxed.
Last month a group of distinguished women, meeting with President Ernesto Zedillo to celebrate the International Day of Women, emphasized that changing the workday is key not only to a more equitable society but to stronger and healthier families.
"The workday in Mexico is abominable, and it's especially hard on women because of the work that awaits them at home," says Carolina O'Farrill Tapia, an independent congresswoman. "But in this culture the response to any woman who seeks to do things differently has been, 'If you can't work the hours, go back to your house.' "
Mercedes Aguilar is finding that out. A successful Mexico City legal secretary, Ms. Aguilar (not her real name) wants to change jobs: Her current boss has failed to respect an agreement that she could work eight hours and go home at 4 p.m. to tend to her little boy. But, in looking for a new job, Aguilar is confronting her country's culture.