The pandemic is squeezing down earnings for millions of informal Bolivian workers and threatening years of economic gains in one of South America’s poorest countries
* Eight in 10 Bolivian workers are employed informally
* Pandemic squeezing formal jobs and off-the-books wages
* Many self-employed people are adapting to survive
By Anastasia Moloney and Wara Vargas
LA PAZ, March 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As a clown with a talent for rapping, Reynaldo Luna used to make a decent living performing at children's parties in Bolivia's highland capital La Paz, where he goes by the name of Rapito Mix. But everything changed when COVID-19 reached the Andes.
Luna's income of around the monthly minimum wage of $300 has been decimated by lockdown bans on parties and a deep recession in one of South America's poorest countries, forcing him to turn his creativity to a new, pandemic-friendly business.
About a year ago, Luna and seven other hard-up entertainers started producing their own line of clown and superhero-inspired face masks and delivering them to customers on motorbikes - complete with red noses, painted faces and a bunch of balloons.
"It's a home delivery that lifts the spirit and puts a smile on a child's face. We tried to do something original," said Luna, 38, who has two children. "We haven't been able to save money. It's just to keep ourselves going."
Luna belongs to an army of self-employed people including street vendors, market traders and small business owners, who often work for daily cash in hand and make up the bulk of the informal economy in the nation of 11.6 million people.
Even before the coronavirus struck, eight in 10 Bolivian workers were off the books, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), meaning they have no social security, health insurance or employment protections.
As businesses close and people are laid off, the informal economy looks set to expand and incomes within it - for workers like Luna - are expected to be squeezed even lower.
"Formal sector jobs are being replaced by informal activities," said Martin Rama, chief economist for Latin America and Caribbean at the World Bank.
"The expectation is that there will be less formal employment and lower earnings in the informal sector," he added.
On any given street in La Paz, a city starkly divided by class and race, the informal economy is in plain sight. Women sell snacks and hot drinks on the sidewalk, men clean car windscreens and make deliveries and children shine shoes.
While such scenes are a common feature of the urban landscape across Latin America, Bolivians are far more likely to work cash in hand and without a formal work contract.
"In Bolivia, the informal sector is large and one of the highest in the region," said Philippe Vanhuynegem, Andean countries director at the International Labour Organization (ILO).
The pandemic has exposed a reality faced by many Bolivians - that most workers, particularly farmers and manual or domestic laborers, often have low-paid and temporary jobs that come without safeguards.
Patricia Llave, a 48-year-old mother-of-three, is acutely aware of how precarious her livelihood is.
She used to make about $700 a month selling her husband's hand-crafted furniture as part of the family's carpentry business, and as a part-time caterer for events.
But a year on, COVID-19 lockdowns have seen their earnings plummet and their savings run out.
Now the couple are scraping a living by hawking pandemic essentials - hand sanitizer, face masks and movies on DVD in La Paz's steep streets.
"If we don't go out, we don't earn," said Llave, who sets off from home with her bag of goods in the chilly dark before dawn.
To help cushion the COVID-19 economic blow, millions of Bolivians have received some $700 million in government cash transfers.
Bolivia's left-wing President Luis Arce, who took office in November, has pledged to dole out social payouts "as many times as necessary", and the aid has benefited students, people with disabilities, poor families and mothers.
Women in Bolivia, as in the rest of South America, are more likely to work in the informal economy, typically as domestic workers, cleaners and cooks, meaning they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
They have also lost their jobs at a faster rate than men, as they are more likely to work in the worst-affected sectors.
"Many women were before the crisis working in the sectors that got hit the worst - tourism, hospitality," Rama said.
BOOM YEARS UNDERMINED
Bolivia was one of the region's steadiest economic success stories during the near 14-year rule of left-wing indigenous leader Evo Morales, which ended in 2019, averaging 4.9% annual GDP (gross domestic product) growth, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The former coca farmer's brand of socialist capitalism lifted many Bolivians out of poverty and saw the middle class grow from 35% to 58% of the population between 2005 and 2017, official data shows.
Yet the coronavirus threatens to undermine such gains.
Bolivia's economy, dominated by farming and natural gas exports, shrank by 7.3% last year, while the number of poor people - defined as those earning less than $5.50 a day - rose from 22% to 31%, the World Bank estimates.
Reskilling workers will be vital to achieving a sustained recovery, labor experts said.
"Better jobs require better productivity," said Manuel Urquidi, the IDB's labor markets lead specialist in Bolivia. "In a post-pandemic world, the need for retraining will become bigger."
But for many of the nation's informal workers, changing tack to adapt to the times comes naturally.
Jose Valdez, a former self-employed radio presenter, lost his job last year as advertising revenue dried up.
That prompted him to start a food delivery business and app, called Chasqui Delivery, that employs about 30 people to courier restaurant orders and ceviche made by his wife on foot and bike.
"We decided to learn new skills," said Valdez, 35, who hopes to expand his business nationwide by selling it as a franchise. "We decided COVID wouldn't defeat us."
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney in Bogota; Editing by Helen Popper: Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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