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Badly paid work will not save Guatemalans from poverty

by Alistair Smith

While British unions campaigned for decent wages during Fair Pay Fortnight, Guatemala faced a threat to one of the few protections it has for workers – the minimum wage.

However, while the government pursues a race to the bottom, Guatemala’s unions are working hard to improve workers’ pay.

In one of the most violent societies in the world, the right to work at a lower minimum wage than the rest of the country is generating violence at local level, as protests mount on both sides of a key national debate over regional and sectoral minimum wages.

Despite the Guatemalan trade union movement’s opposition to the proposal for differentiated minimum wages, imposed by Presidential Decree in March 2014, local mayors and – perversely – people from the four districts affected have mobilised to defend the right to a badly paid job.

In a recent demonstration in the capital city, police and protesters clashed when a group broke into the offices of the Human Rights Ombudsman to make their point about jobs.

That point rests on the erroneous assumption that badly paid work can save people from poverty.

Since the beginning of this year, those defending the right to work, even at low wages, have been in a battle with the national Human Rights Ombudsman who secured a veto on the move by the government and allies to cut the minimum wage in four districts of the country where companies are investing in production for international markets.

Some districts, like Zacapa to the north east of Guatemala City, are facing 75 per cent unemployment, and some Guatemalans have been convinced that the answer is jobs that pay so little it will barely make a difference.

The proposed minimum wage changes would slash the daily amount to 41 quetzales (approximately US$5.40) from 77.80 (US$10.20), between 1757.43 (US$230.50) and 2108.92 (US$276.60) quetzales per month, but the government’s own figures put the price on a basket of goods enough to cover basic needs at more than twice the rate being offered.

Experiences in other low paid sectors, such as garments and textiles, have already shown that such work does not provide an escape from poverty, and existing levels of poverty pay have not yet sparked a jobs boom: instead of making lives better in districts like Zacapa, it seems likely that all it will achieve is to reduce the rest of the country’s workers to the same level of desperation.

Although the current proposals only cover light manufacturing, these new rates can only undermine the steady progress being made to raise pay and conditions for Guatemalan workers in other sectors.

 

Unionised banana workers

Just up the road from Zacapa in the mainly unionised banana exporting communities of Izabal, the Union of Banana Workers of Izabal (SITRABI) and sister unions have painstakingly – over many years and at a terrible cost of lives – negotiated wages well above the minimum.

In Del Monte’s own plantations for example, the union does not hesitate to talk about being close to ‘decent’ or ‘living’ wage levels for the men and women who work there.

SITRABI are pursuing the opposite goal of the government and working to raise wages for workers not currently represented by a union.

The average wage gap between Del Monte’s plantations in the unionised north and most plantations in non-unionised southern Guatemala is around 2:1, and in many of those southern plantations workers will have to work more than 12 hours a day, six days a week to even get that close.

SITRABI are looking to work with the better employers in the region to close that gap in a positive way – supporting the workers there to begin a process of collective bargaining, and ultimately raise their pay closer to a living wage.

The UK’s Trades Union Congress and general workers’ union Unite, the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Association (IUF), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL) have rallied to support SITRABI’s cause, inspired not only by their dedication, but also by the implications of their work.

Low wages undercut not just local rates of pay, but working conditions across the whole region.

The government’s proposal to introduce cut-price labour has the power to damage workers throughout Central America, just as the activities of SITRABI have the potential to benefit them.

It is precisely this achievement by Guatemala’s oldest private sector union that is under threat from a government open to doing the business of powerful employers and which is selling to its people the false virtues of a race to the bottom.

 

An unabridged version of this article first appeared on Stronger Unions.

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