Mexico City, Mexico - Maria-Luisa Garcia knows she'll never retire.

The 63-year-old is one of Mexico's many so-called 'muchachas'. The word, which literally means 'girl', indicates someone who helps in a family's home.

Since the age of 10, Garcia has cooked, cleaned, washed clothes and cared for children. Sometimes she lived with the families.

Now a grandmother, she has no choice but to carry on doing the same work.

"If I don't work I have nothing. If today I earn 200 pesos [$13] I can eat tomorrow and the day after. But the next day? What will I do? What will I eat?" asked Garcia.

Teary-eyed she recounts how at times she was forced to find food scraps to feed herself.

"I had to go to the market and look for vegetables thrown on the floor. I had no money," Garcia told Al Jazeera.

Born in Mexico state just outside the capital, her working life began when she was just seven years old. She looked after other children.

At the age of 10, with no education whatsoever, she left with an aunt to find work in the capital, Mexico City.

"I had two dresses and no shoes," Garcia said.

She had left her parents' home because she saw how hard their life was and she wanted to help. They were poor farmers and grew beans and maize. When the crops didn't thrive, the family didn't eat.

Garcia's life in the capital was not much easier, but every week she sent money to her parents.

Informal sector

Garcia is one among the millions of people who spend their working lives in Mexico's vast informal economy.

She has never looked to the state, to politicians or to anyone else to help her. She has never paid taxes. Her worldview has never changed.

"I keep going. I think of my family and grandchildren and keep going," she said.

"If I fall, no one will pick me up," she told Al Jazeera. Once, she briefly had a job as a waitress but quit because she was harassed by some of the male customers.

"My father told me I had to stand up for myself," Garcia said.

Garcia has been working since she was a child [Matt Chandler/Al Jazeera] 

When she reaches 65 years of age, she will receive about $36 a month from the federal government. And when she gets to 68, because she lives in Mexico City, she will receive just over $30 more a month from her local government.

But, Garcia said, this won't be enough to stop working.

Professor Alejandro Villagomez from CIDE, a university which conducts economic research, told Al Jazeera the problem is that the informal sector sector is so large - it constitutes more than 50 percent of the workers.

"This has to be reduced in the future and options found so that every individual is part of the system and is making contributions," Villagomez said.

In December, the OECD secretary-general, José Ángel Gurría, urged governments throughout Latin America to create more formal work opportunities so that all workers can receive proper pensions.

Women in particular are at risk, he said.

"Too many people are excluded. We need reforms to increase pension coverage and ensure some kind of income from the moment of retirement," Gurría said.

But it isn't just those like Garcia who are struggling.

According to OECD research, those who do pay towards a public pension in Mexico are paying too little.

The average worker pays just over one percent of his salary in contributions, the employer over 5 percent and the government just 0.225 percent of that salary towards a pension, the research shows.

In fact, Mexico has the second lowest pension rate in the region.

Villagomez told Al Jazeera: "Contributions into the public pension system are just 6.5 percent of salaries when in other countries it's more than 10 percent."

For a few dollars

On her four-hour bus journey to and from the different homes she visits each day, Garcia encounters many people just like her. She describes one woman of a similar age who was forced to take a job cleaning Mexico City's busy metro stations.

"She works for 70 pesos [less than $5] a day," Garcia said.


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The retired are increasingly competing with the youngest workers trying to make a few dollars.

At supermarkets, it's more and more common to see the over-60s bagging groceries for tips. They don't receive a salary.

Esperanza, who didn't want to give her surname, told Al Jazeera about the supermarket where she works in the south of Mexico City.

"This is one of the few places that will take us. But this company has been taken over by another. I hope they keep us on," Esperanza said.

What retirement?

According to statistics from the Mexican government's CONAPO, or the National Population Commission, there are 10.5 million citizens over 60, which is about 9 percent of the nation.

Of these, 82 percent live in poverty or are 'food insecure' and most of those are women.

In the case of men, it's more common for them to keep working well beyond retirement age.

Three in four men between the ages of 60 and 64 continue working and one in 40 over the age of 80 are in jobs that pay a salary close to the minimum wage. The minimum wage is just under $5 a day in Mexico City and a little less in the rest of the country.

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The CONAPO report stated: "The elderly have the lowest index of social development in the country which translates into few opportunities to live out their old age in a dignified manner."

It is very rare for the elderly in Mexico to end up in a retirement home. Most live with their families which brings its own challenges.

According to the National Institute for the Elderly, three in five of the elderly suffer domestic violence.

Garcia treasures the few days off she gets - usually Sundays.

Often she makes a special meal of chicken for the family that live with her and watches TV on her small set. She is worried some of her children are following in her footsteps.

Two of her daughters live with her and one doesn't work.

"I want something better for them," Garcia said.

She's optimistic though and proudly explains that her 18-year-old granddaughter Andrea has just started college.

Source: Al Jazeera