Mexico's oldest workers brave coronavirus to bag
groceries at Walmart
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[March 20, 2020] By
Daina Beth Solomon
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Grocers including
Walmart de Mexico are under pressure to pull from stores tens of
thousands of elderly workers who pack bags at checkouts as concerns grow
about their vulnerability to coronavirus in a period of panic buying
across the country.
Some 35,000 elderly Mexicans, most between 60 and 74 years old, pack
groceries at Walmart stores and other chains through a government-backed
volunteer program, earning just tips.
The program, already criticized by labor activists, has come under
renewed scrutiny as fears about coronavirus have prompted many Mexicans
to self-isolate and work from home.
People 65 and older account for eight out of every 10 deaths from
coronavirus in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC). In China, where the virus first took hold,
about 80% of deaths have been among people 60 and older, said the CDC
citing Chinese data.
In just three days, a petition on Change.org demanding the senior
workers in Mexico be allowed home with compensation had gathered close
to 69,000 signatures by Thursday.
Ofelia Camarillo, 66, plans to keep packing bags at a Superama, one of
the chains owned by Walmart Inc <WMT.N>, in Mexico City, she said, even
as the number of coronavirus cases mounts and the possibility of
contagion increases. She needs the money.
"I know it's a risk, but if I'm going to stay at home, what would I do?"
Camarillo said, adding that the 450 pesos ($18) she can take home a day
was her only income.
Walmart de Mexico <WALMEX.MX> said its decision to keep the bag packers
in its stores was in line with recommendations from the government's
National Institute for Elderly People (INAPAM), which oversees the
"The activities of the elderly adults as baggers in our stores is
voluntary; that's to say, they're not our employees," a spokeswoman
At Superama, the company has put hand sanitizer at cashiers, supplied
cleaning wipes for checkout counters, urged frequent hand washing and
checks the temperatures of grocery baggers, several workers said.
Walmart also recommended surgical masks, said Guillermo Valdez, 65, who
packs groceries at a Superama in upscale Polanco, but said none were
available early this week.
Even so, Valdez, helping collect shopping carts outside the store, said
he had few worries.
"I'm not scared of death. When it comes, it comes," he said.
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A Walmart sign is pictured at one of their stores in Mexico City,
Mexico March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido/File Photo
Jesica Magdaleno, who launched the Change.org petition, said checkout area
workers were increasingly at risk at Walmart stores - as well as Mexican chains
Soriana, Chedraui and La Comer - given the influx of people stocking up on
"They belong to the population that is most vulnerable to the virus, and they
are exposed to hundreds of people a day," she said. "It's very likely that
supermarkets are bringing in more earnings than expected, so they can surely do
something about it."
A Soriana spokeswoman said that beginning on Friday, the company would no longer
use the elderly volunteers in consideration of their health, and instead ask
shoppers to pack their own bags and leave donations for the volunteers, which
the company would then match.
In line with the government's reluctance to issue pre-emptive measures to
contain coronavirus that might damage the economy, INAPAM's director of state
programs Ricardo Gallardo said workers should not be pulled from stores because
they depend on tips as income.
INAPAM would not offer compensation if workers opted to stay home, he said.
Mexico, with 164 coronavirus cases and one death, has so far fared better than
countries such as China and Italy grappling with thousands of deaths. However,
critics question President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's resistance to travel
bans or work shutdowns.
His toughest measures have been canceling large events and suspending classes as
of next week.
Alejandra Ancheita, head of labor rights organization ProDESC, said Walmart was
shirking responsibility by describing the baggers as volunteers under INAPAM's
"Companies like Walmart have the obligation to make sure work conditions for
elderly grocery baggers don't put their health at risk," she said.
Before heading inside to pack more bags, Valdez joked that a traditional Mexican
remedy would keep the virus at bay.
"I protect myself with alcohol. Tequila on Saturdays."
(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)
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