From the TUC

Guatemala’s Wages See-Saw: minimum pay rights under threat

25 Feb 2015, By Guest

As British unions campaign for decent wages during Fair Pay Fortnight, Guatemala faces a threat to one of the few protections it has for workers –  the minimum wage. The attack is, bizarrely, embraced by some of the workers themselves. 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 demonstration last week 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. Saúl Beltetón, mayor of Guastatoya, told press:

“In the communities people only eat beans and tortilla because there’s no work; people are going hungry and the legal challenge that’s been presented (from the HR Ombudsman’s office) is a violation of the individual’s right to work”.

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% 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 £3.50 from £6.64, between £150 & £180 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 (known as “maquila”), 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.

Just up the road from Zacapa in the mainly unionised banana exporting communities 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. This has come at a huge, well-documented cost, but it has been achieved by courageous and well-organised working people with the support of the trade union movements of many countries in the richer world.

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, 6 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 TUC, Unite, the IUF, the ITUC, AFL-CIO and Italy’s 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 (or potential employers) and which is selling to its people the false virtues of a race to the bottom. General Secretary of SITRABI, Noé Ramirez, put it this way:

“If the Government can get away with imposing lower wages for workers, even if it is in areas where there is widespread poverty because of high unemployment, then our chances as a trade union movement of trying to raise the bar in the banana industry in the rest of the country are seriously reduced.

Employers will see the signal as a green light to reduce costs at people’s expense. The goal of decent work for all will simply slip out of workers’ hands, possibly forever.”