Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s insensitive recent comments about planned changes to the country’s minimum wage were answered by nationwide demonstrations on February 22, organized by Guatemala’s Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas (National Coordination of Peasant Organizations—CNOC). In response to four accords approved at the end of 2014 to establish a lower monthly minimum wage of 1,500 quetzales ($196.6) in the municipalities of Estanzuela, Masagua, San Augustine and Guastatoya, protesters blocked at least 22 roads in various parts of the country, including border areas and major highways.
According to the government, a differentiated minimum wage would lower labor costs to encourage investment in the four municipalities. The new wages were set to go in effect in January, but the decision was suspended late that month after the Procurador de los Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Ombudsman—PDH) raised an injunction in the Constitutional Court, arguing that the measure violated labor rights of workers in those areas. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston, also criticized the decision. “Having an exploited labor force is not a viable way to foster economic and social development,” he affirmed.
Responding to the controversy in a press conference last weekend, Baldetti defended the wage differential in a way that many Guatemalans found offensive. Baldetti claimed that if she lived in Estanzuela and had five children, she would be “blessed by God” if she was offered a job in a factory, “whatever the laws say.” “It’s better to have 1,200 quetzales [$157] in your pocket [than to have] nothing and have to eat […] once a day, tortilla with salt,” she said.
Guatemala’s national minimum wage is 2,644.50 quetzales ($346) a month for agricultural and nonagricultural workers, but some workers say they receive as little as 600 to 700 quetzales ($78.63 to $91.74) a month. A report by Empresarios por la Educación links lower levels of education to lower pay, with Guatemalans who have little to no formal education receiving salaries far below the minimum wage.
Meanwhile, the cost of living has increased—making a lower minimum wage particularly taxing. Guatemala’s Instituto Nacional de Estadística (National Institute of Statistics—INE) has reported that the canasta básica alimentaria (basic food basket), an index of 26 staple goods, has increased in price by 11.11 percent from January 2014 to January 2015.
“This minimum wage only covers a quarter of the basic costs of living for an average Guatemalan family,” said UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Hilal Elver. “Paid so little, already vulnerable households are left in a precarious situation, unable to ensure a decent standard of living for themselves and their families, with food security and access to an adequate and nutritional diet seriously undermined.”
And even though gasoline prices have fallen by over $1 a liter recently, prices of other goods have remained the same or risen, especially the cost of meat. Local experts have denounced these price increases, blaming a lack of consumer protection.
The vice president’s comments have allowed Guatemalans to wax lyrical on social media about their leaders. Indeed, Baldetti is no stranger to controversy. Following the BBC’s investigative exposé of abuse and neglect at the Carlos Federico Mora Mental Hospital in Guatemala City, she described the institution as “very nice.” In 2013, she caused a diplomatic incident with Mexico after mocking President Enrique Peña Nieto over the scandal involving his new mansion, although Baldetti had recently taken ownership of a large property herself. Perhaps her most famous faux pas was last year, when she vowed that she had not fallen for the temptation of corruption. “I have not stolen a penny,” said Baldetti, “I swear on the life of my mother, who is dead.”
Guatemala holds elections in September and most likely faces a presidential run-off in November, and Baldetti has expressed a wish to run for mayor of Guatemala City. However, she would have to convince electoral authorities that a sitting official can campaign, which is currently prohibited in Guatemala.
Meanwhile, other political figures have also fallen under scrutiny over the wage differential controversy. Economic Minister Sergio De La Torre owns a clothing company and could benefit from lower labor costs if differentiated minimum wages were rolled out across Guatemala, something the plan’s detractors claim could happen.
As prices go up, even when the cost of transporting goods falls, the prospect of a lower minimum wage is as welcome as tortilla and salt for a month. Add in inflation and the government flip-flopping over whether the macro outlook is good or bad, and—as the protests show—the average Guatemalan does not look favorably on the views of a multi-millionaire telling them how to work and for what wage.