NEW ORLEANS — About 75 percent of the population in Guatemala lives below the poverty line. Illiteracy rates are extremely high and few children remain in school past primary school. Half of all children in Guatemala are malnourished.
Weak governmental infrastructures and high rates of poverty contribute to extremely high amounts of violence. Drug trade, lack of law enforcement and access to weapons fuel high rates of murder, and the Department of State found that the number of missing persons increased by 207 percent from 2009 to 2013.
High rates of poverty and violence limit opportunity. This provided a partial cause for the high number of unaccompanied minors who attempted to illegally enter the United States this year. Rather than face the high likelihood of continued poverty and violence, families chose to send their children on an extremely dangerous journey across the border.
Even when Guatemalans are employed, this does not mean that they are able to provide for themselves or their families. According to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, over 40 percent of the work force did not receive minimum wage in 2008. For those who do, minimum wage only partially covered the basic cost of living. Over half of the labor force is in the informal sector, which means the workers do not receive overtime, healthcare or the benefits of working in the formal sector.
Should workers choose to join a union, a manager or boss is legally allowed to fire all participants in strikes. This significantly limits the ability for workers to lobby for their rights and express their dissatisfaction, as entire families might depend on an individual in the work force. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, Guatemala is the most dangerous country in the world for trade unions.
As of 2006, the Central American-Dominican Republican Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) requires that Guatemala and six other countries, including the U.S., must give their citizens certain labor rights. In return, the agreement guarantees lower or no tariffs, more open markets, greater transparency and more innovative trade practices.
On September 18, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman stated that the U.S. will pursue a case of abused labor rights in Guatemala. The case could result in fines of $15 million each year or the removal of trade benefits from CAFTA-DR.
In his reasoning for pursuing the case, Froman stated, “Our goal in taking action today remains the same as it has always been: to ensure that Guatemala implements the labor protections to which its workers are entitled.”
Following the CAFTA-DR agreement, the U.S. granted Guatemala several months to improve labor rights. Following the initial deadline, Guatemala was granted several extensions to follow through on the CAFTA-DR agreements. Failure to do so has led the U.S. government to enforce labor rights by following through on the labor rights growth.
U.S. government officials hope that following through on the case will create an incentive for the Guatemalan government to ensure labor rights for its citizens. If not, Guatemala will face significant costs that will further weaken its economy.
– Tara Wilson