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Agriculture has been, for several years, the main source of income for rural communities in Guatemala. For this reason, the largest number of job opportunities is located on earth. Photo: FAO/Luis Sánchez Díaz

Agribusiness in Guatemala: Impunity and Precariousness

08 November, 2023 | Mónica Garzaro Scott

The Republic of Guatemala has built its national economy around the agro-export sector, primarily focusing on sugar, palm oil, coffee, bananas, and some non-traditional products like vegetables and flowers. There are several possibilities and exceptions in place for the production of agroindustrial products that contribute and support various industries within the country. Despite this, the sector’s contribution to the gross domestic product has been declining over the years (10.72% in 2012 and 9.31% in 2022[1]), with remittances now being the primary source of income (19.16% in 2022[2]). Additionally, approximately 70% of workers are part of the informal economy[3].

Around 46.15% of Guatemala’s population resides in rural areas[4], where all agro-industrial companies are situated, primarily along the South Coast and in the Northeast of the country. The Economically Active Population (EAP) in 2018 was 5,020,548[5], with 29.2% employed in the primary sector, totaling 1,466,000 workers engaged in agriculture. However, according to a 2021 report by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food (MAGA), only 91,532 people within the primary sector (agriculture, livestock, hunting, forestry, and fishing) are affiliated as contributors to the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security, accounting for 6.2% of the agricultural workforce.

Another crucial aspect to highlight is the working conditions within Guatemalan agribusiness, particularly for seasonal and outsourced workers. The institutions responsible for enforcing labor standards are currently inadequate, offering insufficient support to workers when their rights are violated. Workers face numerous obstacles in asserting their rights due to the vast opportunities for exploitation within agribusiness, protected by labor legislation.

Guatemala has a dark history of persecuting trade unions and leaders of peasant organizations supporting workers in this sector. Presently, there is only one union in the sugar sector—the Palo Gordo Sugar Mill Union. There are no unions in the palm oil sector, and although there are unions in the east of the country for the banana sector, none exist on the South Coast.

Contrary to the sugar sector’s slogan, claiming “Sugar Cane is the economic engine for Guatemala,” 83% of the employment provided by the sugar sector is indirect (out of a total of 336,000 jobs). These indirect jobs include “zafreros” hired for six months to cut cane. They are often recruited through contractors, mainly targeting young individuals from extremely poor rural areas devoid of job opportunities, relying on subsistence farming.

During a recent visit to a municipality where “zafreros” are hired, we encountered heartbreaking family stories illustrating the level of injustice many young people face in their struggle to escape poverty and famine. Most “zafreros” lack literacy skills, possess basic Spanish proficiency, and confront significant challenges within their communities regarding education, healthcare, communication, high poverty rates, and limited opportunities.

As stated by one interviewee during a field visit to a Jocotán Chiquimula community:

“…One of my sons couldn’t endure it, only ten days in, he fell ill, they seized his ID and didn’t allow him to leave. They demanded payment for transportation and sent him back. There, at times, he went hungry, sometimes slept, mostly worked. There’s a wearing down of life that doesn’t recover, they leave at 3 AM and return at 10 PM. There’s widespread drug use; without it, they can’t endure the strenuous work. My son lost his sanity. There’s a lot of misfortune in the community, and it shouldn’t be this way… They deceive them about their wages, paying less than promised, and when they protest, they face threats. Some who demanded their rights were harmed, and some disappeared.”

If you have any inquiries, please feel free to contact us. We would be delighted to assist you. Guatemalan agribusiness, in general, has been embroiled in numerous controversies, involving disputes over land ownership, dispossession, labor rights violations, and environmental threats. However, these complaints remain unresolved, and complete impunity persists.

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/442704/guatemala-gdp-distribution-across-economic-sectors/#:~:text=This%20statistic%20shows%20the%20distribution,percent%20from%20the%20services%20sector.

[2] https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/Guatemala/remittances_percent_GDP/#:~:text=Remittances%20as%20percent%20of%20GDP&text=For%20that%20indicator%2C%20we%20provide,from%202022%20is%2019.16%20percent.

[3] https://www.elibrary.imf.org/view/journals/002/2023/173/article-A004-en.xml

[4] INE 2019

[5] INE Censo 2018