March 2019
You see the headlines about the US-Mexico border on a daily basis: Asylum seekers, guest workers, and other international migrants are seeking safety and a chance to break out of a cycle of poverty by coming to the United States. Yet for all the exposure these stories receive, there is little explanation of who these people are and why they take their risky journeys to an uncertain, if not altogether ill-fated, future. These situations are evidenced worldwide. People leave their homelands not simply to escape unemployment, but very often to leave behind intolerable employment under woefully inadequate conditions. Rare is the personal, illuminating story like Aljazeera’s recently published article on the effect palm oil expansion has had on Guatemalan migration. Rarer still is the story that offers supply chain professionals a clear context and understanding of how promoting compliance with national laws and corporate supply chain standards can directly impact the lives of these vulnerable populations. 
This past December, two young indigenous Guatemalan children tragically died in U.S. custody after migrating to the United States with their fathers. And why did they venture north? Those fathers were seeking jobs that would provide their families with the most basic necessities. They were fleeing not gang violence (as many Central American migrants rightly are), but from extreme poverty, which poses a very real threat to the lives and futures of all too many indigenous children in rural Guatemala. The families of both children depended on jobs in the palm oil and coffee sectors, which Verité’s extensive research has shown provide workers with far less than a living wage. Workers’ meager earnings, combined with a lack of access to health care and education, mean that children face the very real risk of severe malnutrition, fatal diseases, and the prospect of being trapped in poverty for the rest of their lives.
Jakelin Caal was just seven years old when she went on the treacherous 2,000-mile journey north to the United States with her father, Nery, who decided to make the exodus to help the family escape from a cycle of “extreme poverty.”[1] Jakelin was from Raxruhá, Alta Verapaz, the department with the highest poverty rate (83 percent) in all of Guatemala.[2] Raxruhá and the neighboring municipality of Sayaxche, Peten are located in an isolated region where palm production has taken over a large percentage of the arable land, leaving very few jobs for unskilled laborers outside of the palm sector. Palm oil production in Raxruhá has been connected with deforestation and land-grabs that have deprived people of land for subsistence agriculture, forcing them to rely on jobs in the sector that do not provide close to a living wage.[3] Jakelin’s grandfather claimed that people in the community earned GTQ 40-50 (USD 4.18-6.47) per day, or about half of the minimum wage of GTQ 90.16 (USD 11.65), which itself is still well below the living wage. They were so poor that, “when children get sick, it is by God’s will that they survive, taking herbs or sometimes a pill if we can.”[4]
Felipe Gomez Alonzo came from a village in Huehuetenango, a predominantly indigenous department in the Western highlands of Guatemala and one of Guatemala’s leading coffee-producing regions. Huehuetenango is renowned for growing high-altitude specialty coffee that can sell for hundreds of dollars a pound; it has won numerous international awards for being the best coffee in the world. Felipe’s father worked harvesting coffee and — like Jakelin’s father — earned about USD 6 per day,[5] far less than the minimum wage, let alone a living wage, which an in-depth study, released by the Global Living Wage Coalition in 2018 with input from Verité, found was about 21 percent higher than the minimum wage.[6] In many cases, women and children help to harvest coffee because workers are paid according to the amount of coffee harvested, so these meager wages often reflect the earnings of whole families.[7] Because the predominantly indigenous Guatemalans who harvest coffee in Huehuetenango earn so little, it is one of the poorest departments in Guatemala and thus also one of the leading departments of origin for both internal migrants and international migrants to Mexico and the United States.
Jakelin, Felipe, and their fathers were fleeing from impoverished indigenous rural agricultural communities where they were living on a dangerous precipice in which an injury or job loss can result in severe malnutrition, and a common illness can result in death. This situation is not unique to these two families. Approximately 80 percent of indigenous Guatemalan families live below the poverty line, and almost 50 percent live in “extreme poverty.”[8] Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) concluded that inequality, discrimination, and an economic model dependent on agriculture contributed to elevated levels of poverty among indigenous peoples, as well as staggering levels of malnutrition. According to the PDH, Guatemalans living below the poverty line were plagued by hunger and malnutrition.[9] In fact, 47 percent of Guatemalans experienced chronic malnutrition, the sixth highest rate of any country in the world,[10] and the highest rate of malnutrition of any middle-income country. Chronic malnutrition, which can lead to lifelong physical and developmental impediments, was especially prevalent in rural and indigenous communities.[11]
In Guatemala, a large percentage of the workforce is comprised of unregistered temporary agricultural workers who lack access to stable employment or benefits such as health care and social security. Alta Verapaz and Huehuetenango have the second and third lowest rates of formal employment in Guatemala, at just 1.6 and 1.7 percent, respectively. Furthermore, the earnings of the richest one percent of the population equal the earnings of the poorest 40 percent. On average, Guatemalans earned about GTQ 2,100 (USD 280) per month, about two-thirds of the minimum wage, and less than 60 percent of the government’s estimate of the cost of a basic basket of goods needed to provide a subsistence-level diet to a family of four.[12] This is the average income across the country, and earnings in rural communities in the impoverished departments of Alta Verapaz and Huehuetenango are, of course, much lower.
While the United States spends billions of dollars trying to stem the flow of Central Americans to the border, the problem will never be solved until the push factors of migration are addressed. Although it is extremely important to invest in initiatives to combat criminality in Central America, it is also vital to implement effective initiatives focused on economic migrants. There have been a number of projects to promote “development” through job creation; however, the problem in Guatemala is not unemployment, but a lack of decent jobs that provide workers with sufficient income and benefits to cover their families’ most basic needs. The solution lies, therefore, not only in the creation of more jobs, but rather in providing Guatemalans with access to decent work that provides them with living wages. The laws are already in place, and if workers were simply paid the minimum wage, registered, and provided with legally mandated health care and social security benefits, the welfare of rural families would increase much more dramatically than could be achieved by even the most successful development program. With parents’ incomes doubling or tripling, they would be able to provide their children with enough food, send them to school, and obtain medical care if they became ill. Parents would no longer have to take their children along on treacherous journeys north, but fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters could live and thrive with their families in the communities they love. As a Guatemalan NGO puts it, Guatemalans should have the “right to not migrate.”[13]
Companies, multi-stakeholder initiatives, international organizations, and NGOs have already put in place various standards and protocols to promote higher wages and better working conditions among agricultural workers, but as evidenced by the plights of Jakelin’s and Felipe’s families, much still needs to be done to ensure that rural families that produce our agricultural goods have a decent standard of living. It is key that companies to determine living wages by region. The Global Living Wage Coalition has released a series of reports on living wages in specific regions, based on a robust methodology,[14] and Fair Trade International recently released a report on its methodology for establishing a Living Income Reference Price for cocoa farmers in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.[15] Both of these methodologies could be applied to determine living wages in other countries, regions, and sectors. Companies should work with their suppliers to ensure that, in practice, agricultural workers employed in their supply chains are registered, provided with legally mandated benefits, paid directly for their work, and receive at the very least the minimum wage independent of production, including those paid piece rates. By doing so, companies can have enormous impacts on the lives of the families that produce their goods, improving their access to adequate nutrition, healthcare, and education, and allowing workers to thrive without having to leave their families and communities behind in search of jobs that may allow them to cover their most basic needs.
For more information, contact Quinn Kepes at

[1] Menchu, Sofia. “Dead Guatemalan girl dreamed of sending money home to poor family.” Reuters. December 2018.
[2] “Guatemala: One of the most unequal Latin American economies has the lowest unemployment rate.” Latin American Post. August 2018.
[3] Menchu, Sofia. “Dead Guatemalan girl dreamed of sending money home to poor family.” Reuters. December 2018.
[4] Sam, Eduardo. “Muerte de Jakelin Caal: Éxodo en San Antonio Secortez tiene origen en la pobreza.” Prensa Libre. December 2018.
[5] “Felipe Gomez Alonzo: Eight-year-old Guatemalan boy who died at US border had flu, autopsy shows.” Independent. December 2018.
[6] Voorend, Koen, Richard Anker and Martha Anker. Living Wage Report Rural Guatemala. September 2016
[7] “Felipe Gomez Alonzo: Eight-year-old Guatemalan boy who died at US border had flu, autopsy shows.” Independent. December 2018.
[8] Menchu, Sofia. “Dead Guatemalan girl dreamed of sending money home to poor family.” Reuters. December 2018.
[9] Procurador de Derechos Humanos. “PDH presents Annual Report to the Congress.” February 8, 2012.
[10] USAID. Guatemala: Nutrition Profile. May 18, 2018.
[11] United Nations World Food Programme. “Guatemala.” 2012.
[12] “Guatemala: One of the most unequal Latin American economies has the lowest unemployment rate.” Latin American Post. August 2018.
[13] Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Sociales y Desarrollo. “¿Quinés Somos?
[14] See:
Photo: Quinn Kepes

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