Slave Labor

From Guatemala: False Hope, False Freedom


One of the most popular postcards on sale to tourists in Guatemala City depicts three fair-skinned Guatemalan women picking coffee, dressed in brilliant and spotless indigenous costumes. The colour of their lipstick neatly matches the bright red of the coffee berries. The back of the card reads 'indigenas cortando café' which is translated as 'natives gathering coffee'. It would be hard to imagine a more distorted image of the reality of coffee-picking. Most of the women pickers on the coffee estates are Indians, many of whom are forced by their poverty to travel with their husbands and children to the plantations at harvest time. Rigoberta Menchu was one of them:


'Mothers are very tired and just can't do [the picking]. This is where you see the situation of women in Guatemala very clearly. Most of the women who work picking cotton and coffee, or sometimes cane, have nine or ten children with them. Of these, three or four will be more or less healthy, and can survive, but most of them have bellies swollen from malnutrition and the mother knows that four or five of her children could die. We'd been on the finca for fifteen days when one of my brothers died from malnutrition. My mother had to miss some days' work to bury him. Two of my brothers died in the finca. The first, he was the eldest, was called Felipe. I never knew him. He died when my mother started working. They'd sprayed the coffee with pesticide by plane while we were working, as they usually did, and my brother couldn't stand the fumes and died of poisoning."


Women represent around 25 per cent of all the temporary wage labour on the coffee plantations. On top of the picking, they often have to do the cooking in the galeras [open sleeping barns] in which they are housed with the rest of the temporary workers. These galeras usually have dirt floors, no beds, no side walls and no nearby access to running water or sanitary facilities. Some of the highest malnutrition levels and child death rates are to be found on the plantations. One recent study of 602 Indian women who were resident workers on ten plantations found that over a certain period there had been 2,424 live births but a staggering 645 deaths - for 127 seasonal women workers the figures were 656 live births and 170 deaths.

The reckless use of pesticides (particularly on cotton plantations) is a particular problem for mothers. A famous 1978 INCAP study showed that Guatemala had the highest reported levels of DDT contamination of mothers' milk in the entire world: out of a sample of 81 women living in different parts of Guatemala, only one had lower than the recommended limit. On the cotton plantations the levels were between 12 and 244 times the acceptable minimum.4 Why the heavy use of insecticides? In the words of one of the landowners: 'It's very simple: more insecticide means more cotton, fewer insects mean bigger profits.'

In 1976 a paper was presented to the UN which claimed that the transport and working conditions were so appalling and the labour recruitment methods of such dubious legality that the whole system of migratory labour could be justifiably compared to that of slavery A contratista [contractor] usually lends money in advance to peasant farmers who use it to buy corn or fertiliser. In return the peasants have to work on the finca for a fixed period, and the loan is automatically deducted from the wage.

A personal visit by a foreign journalist to a coffee and cardamom finca near Nuevo Progreso in San Marcos in September 1986 revealed that little has changed in the ten years since the UN paper. She picked coffee on the finca with a group of 50 migrant workers from villages near Sacapulas, Ouiche who were on a one-month contract:


'The families live all together in a galera which consists of roughly planked walls, a dirt floor, and no furniture except some hammocks and posts to hang bundles on. They are being paid Q4.20 (about £1) for every 100 pounds of coffee they pick, but they are only able to pick 30 pounds a day. Some of them, even after working a whole month, are not going to earn enough to pay off the contratista who had lent them the money to buy the fertilizer they need for their milpas, so they are still going to end up in debt. The adult workers receive only two pounds of corn and four ounces of beans per day which they must share with their children. The rest of their food they have to buy from the closest town (several kilometres away) or from the permanent workers on the farm. The woman who does the cooking for the workers migrates to the farms every year with her husband and three children. They have ten cuerdas [about one acre] of land in Ouiche, but in their own words 'they have to have paid work to have something to eat in the summer.' She goes to bed at 7p.m., gets up at 1 a.m. to prepare the breakfast for the rest of the workers, and then takes them out their food at lunchtime. For that she and her husband (who cuts the wood) earn Q6 between them (75p each) a day. The owner of the finca is said to be a military man or a judicial [member of the secret police] he also owns two other fincas, a new. white helicopter, a new Cherokee, and a large chalet on the beach near El Salvador.'



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