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.

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.

"It's incredible, but when I say I want to work and spend time with my son, I get questions like, 'Aren't you going to be neglecting your child?' " she says. "I even had one interviewer ask if my husband approves of me working - as if anyone would ever think to ask me if I 'approve' of my husband working."

Aguilar says she is now focusing on finding work with a foreign, probably American, company. A few months working in the US showed her a different workday culture, she says.

"In the first place if anyone asked if your husband approved of you working they could be sued," she says lightly, adding: "But, besides that, I found more flexibility, and the emphasis was on efficiency rather than working long hours.

Different on the job in the US

"Here if you finish up at 6 p.m., the word gets around that you're not a serious worker," she says. "There the thinking was that if you couldn't get your work done in a reasonable amount of time, you weren't working efficiently."

Placing efficiency above long hours is gaining the attention of many young Mexican women who want a career and a family.

"I know of one American company here where they actually shut off the lights and lock the doors at 6 o'clock," says Angeles Alvarez, a university information systems director. "That's shocking for Mexico, but it gets the point across that you can do your work in reasonable time if you're efficient." Working toward a goal of starting her own software company, Ms. Alvarez says her ideal is a workplace where men and women can set flexible hours to meet both professional and personal needs.

"The root problem in Mexico is still the old macho idea that women workers are inferior, and so if they want to prove themselves they either have to be like real men and work the long hours - or stay home."

Alvarez sees the contemporary two-income family as forcing change in Mexico - plus private-sector companies that recognize the connection between productivity and successful family lives.

"Mexico has a productivity problem that will only be addressed when the public and private sectors have basically the same reasonable work schedule," says Maria Fernanda Garza, commercial director of MASCOMEX, an 86-employee building materials and fixtures company. Its office workers can choose between two work schedules, according to home needs. and employees are trusted to make up for time they take to be away from work for children.

A good beginning, but ...

"The government should do more to encourage development of small businesses, because that's where positive innovation will come," Ms. Garza says. She and her husband founded and built up the company before selling to US-based MASCO in 1994.

The government's attack on the long workday is a "good beginning" - and for more than just government workers, she adds, because many companies are obliged to follow the same schedule.

But the mother of two says another big change has to take place in Mexico before the problem of a woman's long workday is really addressed:

"The mothers have to educate their children, and especially their sons, very differently. They have to cut through the machismo enveloping everything here to plant the idea that caring for and educating children is a responsibility both parents must share."

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