The conditions under which most Guatemalans work are less than desirable and often in violation of Guatemalan law. According to the nation's labor laws, the minimum daily wage is US$3.00 for agricultural workers, US$3.30 for workers in commerce, US$3.38 for construction workers, and US$6.00 for specialized labor. The workweek consists of 44 hours for day-shift workers and 36 hours for night-shift workers. Overtime work is to be compensated with time-and-a-half pay, and children under the age of 18 are not to work overtime. In terms of workplace conditions, employers are to ensure healthy and safe environments for their workers by providing adequate bathroom facilities and on-hand medical care. If 25 percent of the employees at a given workplace request to organize a trade union, they have the right to do so freely.
Work conditions in Guatemala's agricultural and industrial sectors often fail to meet the government's specified requirements. More than 80,000 Guatemalans, most of them young women, work at maquilas (apparel-for-export factories), often in unsafe and unhealthy (not to mention illegal) conditions. Among the labor law violations common to maquilas are forced overtime, employment of children as young as 13 years old, and bathrooms that remain locked for most of the workday. Equally poor conditions exist for workers in the agricultural sector, where the need to meet daily quotas leads to the coercive employment of children as young as 6 years old by their parents, who do not receive compensation unless they reach the fixed quota. Much agricultural employment is seasonal and occurs at off-site locations, where housing facilities are generally poor; at some cotton plantations, the housing provided for workers consists of bare wooden constructions without bedding or furniture. Wages for agricultural and industrial workers often fail to meet minimum wage requirements, and average income is sometimes less than the cost of a basic food basket for a family of 5, meaning that wages are set at starvation levels.
Despite the treacherous conditions that exist for unskilled workers, fewer than 15 percent of all workers are unionized. This fact has much to do with the abuses that have been committed against trade union members and leaders over the past half-century. Military and civilian governments since the 1950s have held union organizations in contempt and have committed serious human rights abuses and "disappearances" against union leaders. Amnesty International has documented that between 1976 and 1996 (the final 20 years of Guatemala's internal war), thousands of trade unionists were tortured and killed, or "disappeared," because of their union activities. This hostile attitude towards labor organizations continues today and acts as a significant deterrent to trade union mobilization.
One major reason that work conditions are so poor and unions so weak is that work is hard to come by in Guatemala. While open unemployment affects about 7 percent of the population, total unemployment lingers around 37 percent; as a result, close to 1 million Guatemalans work in the informal economy , augmenting the formal economy's workforce of 3.5 million. Additionally, the culture of violence that developed during Guatemala's civil war has not yet been eliminated, so threats and coercion are common workplace elements. Not all forms of employment in Guatemala are undesirable; jobs in urban areas and in the service sector provide stable and healthy conditions and livable wages. Too often, however, working conditions do not correspond to the standards set by the Guatemalan government, and of the groups impacted by this disregard for labor laws, unskilled, rural workers suffer the gravest consequences.