Reflections from a trip to Guatemala City

by By Valerie

Buses over-crowded with workers lumber down the congested and polluted streets in downtown Guatemala City. People are going to work and many will travel a couple of hours to get there. Particles of trash blow around as trucks go by. The trees along the street look sick and weak, suffocated by the pollution.
The city is littered with signs advertising electronics, Pio Pollo foods, Pizza Hut restaurants and many other personal care and automotive products, all of which are produced in or near the city.
The city is a locus of pollution, from the air to the officials to the altar, and finding the silver lining can be difficult. Justice is a dream and poverty, disappearances, hunger and children with lead poisoning are a daily reality.
I traveled to Guatemala City a few weeks ago as a delegate with the U.S./Guatemalan Labor Project to interview women who work in the Phillips-Van Heusen plant. The stories I heard about the hardships they must endure make me question the benefits that foreign-owned assembly plants, also known as “maquiladoras,” provide people in Latin America. They may provide much-needed jobs, but most people must endure low wages and oppressive work conditions in return. Maquiladoras create a cycle of poverty that begins with unemployment and ends with underemployment.
One of the women I met was named Rosalva. She has worked at the Phillips-Van Heusen (P-V H) shirt factory in Guatemala City for five years and now makes a little less than three dollars per day. Three dollars a day is the minimum wage in Guatemala City and is about half of what a person needs for a minimal standard of living. She is a single mother and feels fortunate to have a job, despite the oppression and abuse she receives within the factory. Some of the complaints she had were the low wages, the minimal amount of bathroom breaks and the need to ask to go to the bathroom, the guard armed with a machine gun at the entrance of the plant and that there are no holidays, days for sick leave or vacations.
The workers at the P-V H factory have formed a union and are now fighting for a contract. Rosalva became involved in this struggle because she wants a better life for her children. She wants to be able to provide them with adequate clothing and food, and send them to school. Most importantly, she sees the struggle as a fight for a better future for her family. She and her coworkers are fighting so that their children will have a better life.
The contract fight has proven just how oppressive the management can be. Workers who are in support of the union have received pay cuts, are discriminated against and intimidated and the management has threatened to close down operations. These and other forms of workers’ rights abuses have been documented and taken to the Guatemalan authorities, with little success. Denying basic worker rights is an unfair trade advantage that hurts workers in the United States and abroad, yet companies are rarely punished for such injustices.
I heard many stories like Rosalva’s. Of the few women who are married, husbands are often violent to them and their children. Many of the women live in squatter settlements under the constant fear of eviction or cut water and electricity supplies. Communicable diseases and viruses are common and the lack of adequate health care ensures that they will continue to spread.
Thirty minutes outside of Guatemala City I found myself surrounded by beautiful mountains, pine trees, birds, butterflies and pheasants. The air was clear and smelled of earth and pine. I was pleased to see that the maquiladoras remained within the city and had not yet traveled to the rural countryside.
A couple of days later a friend took us on a tour of this beautiful countryside and showed us what I had not wanted to see. Nestled behind the trees and gardens, concrete indicated where a new factory would be built.
On the side of a hill, the land had been cleared and divided up for the new chicken farm. Many food production and product assembly plants were moving into this beautiful region, threatening the delicate balance that has existed there for generations. The street we traveled down was one of the newest and nicest in all of Guatemala. I’m sure it won’t be long before there are big bulky trucks rambling through.

Valerie Olivarez is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column originally ran in The Yale Daily News on Friday March 7.