The Miami Herald
Nov. 10, 2002

Underemployed Colombians stay busy inventing own jobs

  Special to The Herald

  BOGOTA - Alex Silva is a peddler who takes to the streets to make his money.

  Bogotá's own ''RoboCop,'' every day he dons a homemade fiberglass suit -- complete with helmet and a bicycle horn that makes robotic noises -- and helps pedestrians cross busy intersections. For this, he makes a pouch full of coins.

  Poverty levels have reached more than 60 percent in Colombia, and the 16 percent unemployment rate continues to climb. Jobs scarce and needs high, more and more people here are creating their own form of work. Jugglers, dancers and even mimes are posted at traffic lights. People ride donkey-driven wagons to collect cardboard for recycling centers, and some women go house to house renting their washing machines.

  They form an informal work force six million strong in Colombia, a sign of an economy that's slowing sinking. The underemployed represent a challenge to the
  government of Colombia, that needs to create work in a nation already plagued by war.

  ''This is enough to survive,'' Silva said of his earnings.

  Silva, 25, who works eight hours a day six days a week, defends his craft: ''This is an art form,'' he says.

  About 36 percent of the country's 16 million-person workforce is underemployed, according to the Colombian Department of National Statistics. Workers are considered underemployed because of a lack of sufficient hours, or because their education and training exceed skills needed for their current job, said María Angelica Arbelaez, an economist with the Colombian think tank Fedesarrollo.

  When the economy slows, businesses often stop hiring full-time workers so companies can dodge hefty taxes that fund the nation's welfare and pension plans, she said. The result is millions of people who barely make enough to survive, in a country where a 38-year-old war has limited foreign investment and has forced more than two million people out of their homes and jobs.

  ''People are not earning enough to buy the basics,'' said economist Jaime Tenjo. ``Maybe many of them are not even eating.''

  Take Hernán Jaimes and Oscar Borda, who have worked the street corners of Bogotá for four months break-dancing for drivers idling in traffic. Expecting to earn
  between $3 and $8 a day -- which they split -- they said some days they cannot afford food. The only clothes they own are on their backs, and they sleep at friends' homes.

  Jaimes, a 16-year-old high school dropout, found a job at a car wash, but he says he earns more dancing in traffic. So he spends five hours a day six days a week
  prancing about on a thin rubber mat in an exclusive neighborhood. And Borda, 20, said he makes better pay than he did as a bicycle repairman or when he worked at a golf club.

  On a recent afternoon spent spinning on the pavement, about half the cars they approached offered spare change.

  ''Some people say that we are thieves and others say that we work,'' Borda said. ``But the majority of people say that we are thieves.''

  Still, despite public opinion, Borda said it is better to work in the street than not work at all.

  ''We want our own house -- a roof, clothes and food,'' Jaimes said.

  Although these workers can't claim a pension when they retire and don't have access to healthcare, it's worse for others: more than three million Colombians have no work at all. Still others who lost good jobs are working in lesser-paying positions to get by, Tenjo said.

  ''This is the most serious part of the social problems in Colombia,'' Tenjo said. ``Many of them will not get good jobs again.''