Why do we like to pick fights

Children harvest coffee

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World time / archive | Article from February 3, 2011

Day laborers on the plantations in Guatemala

By Andreas Boueke

Coffee plantation in Guatemala (AP Archive)

"Highland coffee from Guatemala" is an export hit, but the working conditions and wages of the pickers are poor. Many migrant workers bring their families with them to the fields; even six-year-olds have to work here.

The little ones who work here are seven years old, ten or eleven. Even the little ones work here:

"It has to be like that. We get up at three in the morning. Then we come here. We start work around seven, we pick coffee."

It is not difficult to find working children in the coffee fields of Guatemala. Hundreds of boys and girls are employed there during the harvest season. You stand between the plants from sunrise to sunset and pick red coffee cherries.

But many of the little ones are so shy that they cannot utter a word in front of the microphone. Or they only understand their mother tongue, one of the 22 different Mayan languages ​​in Guatemala. But fourteen-year-old José speaks Spanish. He is also shy at first, but he feels like talking:

"Only if we all work together will we maybe get better one day. My father and my mother can't do it alone. The owners of the coffee fields treat us like dogs, but we're all the same in life."

José's brother, eight-year-old Miguel, wears trousers with lots of holes - one just above the left buttock. When he stretches and stretches to get the cherries on top of the coffee plants, you can see that he is not wearing underpants:

"Sometimes we are really angry, but sometimes everything is fine. There are days when we have enough to eat and other days we don't have enough. Then we scold us. We want to eat because our stomachs hurt. But it does is nothing there. "

José and Miguel work near the village of Santo Tomas in western Guatemala. The Pacific Ocean is less than a hundred kilometers away, but the coffee fields are more than a thousand meters above sea level. It rains a lot. The growing conditions are ideal. Nobody should go hungry here. The land is fertile. But above all the owners of the large coffee plantations benefit from this. In Guatemala, two percent of the population own 65 percent of the fertile land.

The mother of Miguel and José thinks it is normal for all of their children to work from an early age. She also worked as a little girl. Today she is a young woman who has the burden of responsibility written on her face. While Doña Marta speaks, she looks shyly at the floor. On her dirty, cracked feet, she wears simple plastic sandals with broken straps:

"I tell my kids they have to be tough. It hurts me, but that's life."

Edgar Tec, the father of Miguel and José, is a short, skinny man with a thin face. He looks almost 50 but is only 36 years old.

"Every day, every night I think about what we can do the next day. How can I support my children? But I can't. We're not rich. We don't have a business that we can do a lot of money with. We have no choice but to persevere. "

The plantation where José and Miguel work is called Finca San Jaime. Its owner is Jaime Bonifaz, 64 years old, gray hair and a noticeably fat belly. But he's fit and enterprising. He owns numerous lands in western Guatemala. On his travels to Europe and the USA, he negotiates with business partners and enjoys the nightlife of Miami and Rotterdam. Little Miguel has seen him before.

Don Jaime is an angry man. He scolds people and sometimes he kicks them. Anyone who asks him for work he calls a thief. If he thinks someone has stolen from him, he threatens with a gun.

On the Finca San Jaime the day laborers get 36 quetzals for four boxes of picked coffee cherries. That's about three euros for a hundred pounds. So much can a persevering worker pick in one day; but only if the conditions are favorable. With the help of his children, of course, he can do more.

The day comes to an end. Doña Marta, José and Miguel sat down on the floor next to other families in an old shed to sort the picked cherries. You tip the harvest of the day onto an old woolen blanket and pick out the green cherries. Only the red ones go into the sack.

The shadows have grown longer, the air cooler and the children more exuberant. They have known each other since the beginning of the harvest and now use the time together to fool around a bit. Doña Marta, however, is disappointed with the day's yield: "My son is about to hand over the coffee. But it will probably only be enough for three boxes."

José is also disappointed: "There will be 24, 26 quetzals, although there were three of us picked. But we need 30, 40 quetzals to eat. So it's not enough."

Shortly before the sun goes down, the day laborers drag their filled sacks from the fields, which are often far away, to a crossroads. They have to line up there. The manager Don Camilo is standing on the back of a truck. In his writing pad he has recorded all the families who work on the finca. He enters the respective harvest results behind the name.

One picker after the other throws his sack onto the loading area and waits for Don Camilo to announce the weight he has noted. José observes the scene with great skepticism:

"Do you think they always weigh correctly? - No. Sometimes they take part away. In addition, the box is too big. It should only fit 25 pounds. But it is much too big for that. - They pay very little. They have to we suffer a lot. We have to carry the coffee all the way here, all the way to the weigh-in. - How do you feel about it? - Bad, because we have to work so hard and then we get robbed. I feel cheated. But if they would hear if I talk to you about it, then you won't pay me anything anymore. Let's talk more later. Yes? "

Don Camilo is not worried that he could incorrectly calculate the workers' harvest results. When he announces the total at the end of the week, no one ever protests. Most pickers can neither read nor do arithmetic. They also know that it is not worth starting an argument.

In Guatemala, an agricultural labor movement has formed to fight for the rights of day laborers and small farmers. But when it appears in public, it encounters resistance from wealthy landowners and, not infrequently, state repression. The Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, FLACSO, based in Guatemala City, has published numerous studies on the extreme wealth disparities in the country. Its director, Virgilio Alvarez, believes that farm workers' organizations could make a decisive contribution to changing this situation:

"The farmers have to exert pressure. They have to demand education, schools for their children, better living conditions in the small rural communities. I think the rural poor have no choice but to get together and get mobile. They have to demand that the state Living up to its responsibilities. Guatemala will only change if the agricultural labor sector - the largest sector of the economy - manages to determine the political and economic debate in Guatemala. "

The boy José cannot read the newspaper. He has never participated in a peasant protest. But he also knows that the political and economic conditions in Guatemala would have to change in order to improve the situation of the workers on the large coffee plantations:

"There are many farmers who protest so that their rights are respected. I think that's good. Some rich people exploit the poor. That's why the poor band together. I would also like to fight for the rights of the farmers. The situation here is terrible, but eventually it will get better. "

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