The real employment situation in Mexico is like a riddle wrapped inside an enigma containing a huge conundrum. It’s no accident that it is nearly impossible to decipher, for it was always meant to be that way.

When the National Statistics Institute (INEGI) moved to allegedly high-tech headquarters in Aguascalientes a couple of decades ago, I scheduled a series of interviews with then-chief Carlos Jarque to try to get to the bottom of the employment conundrum. It was no go.

As best as I could make out, INEGI has about 10 types of indicators on joblessness, and uses different methodologies to arrive at the single magic figure of the unemployment rate, which is currently at 4.7% of the 43-million-strong work force, known here as the Economically Active Population (PEA).

The discrepancies begin to emerge when one ascertains that, by the government’s own estimates, the size of the underground (or informal) economy --namely the millions of self-employed who don’t pay taxes or have access to health or social services comprise well over half of GDP.

By some private estimates, Mexico’s actual unemployment figure is very similar to Spain’s, a more developed country that estimates its own rate at close to 20%.

Mexico’s rate is so relatively low for the simple reason that we don’t have unemployment insurance, which means that is a person doesn’t find something to do, like selling chewing gum on street corners, he simply will starve to death. By INEGI’s standards, if a person worked for even a few hours a week cleaning windshields, he is not regarded as unemployed.

So how can it be that even reputable groups such as the Paris-based Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation and the International Monetary Fund endorse Mexico’s official jobless rate?

Well, it’s another case of politically correct feedback. In the travel trade, the Madrid-based World Tourism Organization publishes the figures on Mexico’s travel industry as they are furnished by the Tourism Secretariat, which like INEGI has a propensity for doctoring numbers. Thus legitimized by the WTO, Sectur turns around and boasts of ever growing numbers of foreign arrivals, to name just one category.

The same goes for unemployment. The OECD and IMF legitimize INEGI’s figures, and the government can boast of an unrealistically low jobless rate. Never mind that INEGI uses industrial-world methodologies to estimate the jobless rate for an underdeveloped country. Basically, it’s oranges and apples or, more accurately, oranges and sesame seeds.

Last Easter Sunday, the secretaries of Finance, Ernesto Cordero, and Labor, Javier Lozano, held a highly unusual press briefing to inform that nearly a quarter of a million jobs had been created through mid-April. Beyond the fact that both are presidential hopefuls for next year’s race, they failed to mention several key points:

One, that more than half of those jobs offered flat wages of less than US$600 per month and, what is even worse, that they bring no access to fringe benefits.

Two, that many of those are temp jobs.

Three, that the average job creation effort during the Calderón administration has been 350,000 a year, when population growth demands at least 800,000.

True, unemployment is a global problem that is not likely to improve any time soon. But the point is, the Mexican government adamantly refuses to adopt realism for many of its statistics, creating an economic mirage.

It’s not gratuitous that INEGI, currently headed by Eduardo Sojo, is popularly known as the Max Factor factory, because of the makeup it churns out.

rmena@eleconomista.com.mx