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Guatemala new low minimum wage “setback on sustainable development” – UN rights experts

Geneva (17 February 2015) – Guatemala’s recent decision to introduce a differentiated minimum wage to promote the local manufacturing industry not only violates the country’s international human rights obligations but undermines its international commitment to pursue sustainable development, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, and on the right to food, Hilal Elver warned on Tuesday.

“Having an exploited labour force is not a viable way to foster economic and social development,” Mr. Alston said, reacting to the introduction of a differentiated minimum monthly wage 44 percent lower than the national one, for workers employed in light manufacturing in the municipalities of Estanzuela, Masagua, San Agustín and Guastatoya in Guatemala.

The new local minimum wage of 1500 quetzals, the equivalent of US $195, stands in sharp contrast with the national minimum wage of some 2650 quetzals (US$350) that applies to agricultural and non-agricultural sectors. There are concerns that this decision may be extended to other sectors and regions, thereby triggering a “race to the bottom”. 

“This minimum wage only covers a quarter of the basic costs of living for an average Guatemalan family. 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,” Ms. Elver noted.   

Guatemala is facing international scrutiny over complaints of labour rights violations, including the inadequate amount of minimum wage, the widespread violations of the minimum wage guarantee, the practice of linking wages to unrealistically high production targets, and violations of the freedom of association and protection of the right to form unions. 

Most recently in December 2014, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed its concern* that the legal minimum wage established in Guatemala is insufficient to ensure a decent standard of living for workers and their families and that disparities exist between minimum wages in different economic sectors, particularly in export and textiles. 

“In this context, introducing an even lower minimum wage in a specific industry and specific areas amounts to a retrogressive measure in violation of Guatemala’s obligations under international human rights law and jeopardizes inclusive social development,” Mr. Alston said.

The experts urged Guatemala to guarantee just and favourable conditions of work for all workers in accordance with international human rights law in order to foster an inclusive and sustainable development for its population.   

(*) Check the Committee’s concluding observations on Guatemala: http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=E%2fC.12%2fGTM%2fCO%2f3&Lang=en

Philip Alston (Australia) took office as UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in June 2014, following his appointment by the Human Rights Council. He is John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.  Mr. Alston has previously served the UN in several capacities including as Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Special Adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Millennium Development Goals, as well as chairperson of the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Poverty/Pages/SRExtremePovertyIndex.aspx

Hilal Elver (Turkey) is a Research Professor, and co-director of the Project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy housed at the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has a law degree, a Ph.D. from the University of Ankara Law School, and SJD from the UCLA Law School. She started her teaching career at the University of Ankara Faculty of Law. She was appointed Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food by the Human Rights Council in 2014. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Food/Pages/FoodIndex.aspx 

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page – Guatemala: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/LACRegion/Pages/GTIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Junko Tadaki (+ 41 22 917 9298 / jtadaki@ohchr.org) or write to srextremepoverty@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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