With or Without COVID-19, Child Labor Persists in Guatemala

Fredy Pastor

“Clever kid! Not even the rain could stop him. Here he is, seen in Zona 1 of Coatepeque. On his bicycle it says, ‘Express Delivery Service.’ If you see him, help him out…”

Thus was reported by one of Quetzaltenango’s main media sources on June 10, 2020 the story of a boy from Coatepeque who decided to establish a courier service to earn some money for his financially-challenged family. Some social media users saw the 9-year-old boy as a hero, writing “God bless him.” Others, however, echoed the importance of not romanticizing child and teen labor.

This case is one of many that exists in this country. In Guatemala, thousands of boys and girls work in a variety of jobs so that their families can make ends meet. The 2018 National Employment and Income Survey (ENEI) estimated that 396,479 minors between the ages of 7 and 14 were working. Despite how important it is to measure this problem to be able to solve it, this issue wasn’t even included in the 2019 ENEI.

In 2016, the National Commission for the Eradication of Child Labor (CONAPETI), headed by the vice president and made up of various institutions linked with the topic, established the 2016-2020 Roadmap to Make Guatemala a Country Free of Child Labor. This document was supposed to be a tool designed to help with the progressive achievement of the goal of eradicating child labor. The onus was on the Departmental Committees for the Eradication of Child Labor (CODEPETI) to organize and coordinate the implementation of this tool, but having now reached the final year of the Roadmap’s timeline there have been relatively few achievements in terms of compliance with its goals.

Rebeca Pérez, coordinator of the CEIPA Program on the Municipalization of the Rights of Youth, expressed that the main factor that impeded the success of the Roadmap was the lack of mechanisms and real resources for compliance with judicial and policy frameworks. “The agreements, deals and regulations were clear, but no institution had the specific resources needed to directly address the needs of working youths and adolescents. There were even key institutions like the Ministry of Labor and Social Security that had within its established functions the advancement of measures addressing child labor through UPAT, the Adolescent Labor Protection Unit. Their budget was cut so much that for the past few years, UPAT has not been able to operate at the Department-level of government. Central UPAT coordination has been made even more difficult,” she said.

The World Day against Child Labor is on June 12 of each year. In 2020, the focus of that day was on the impact of the current crisis on child labor, as the COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact on the economy and the labor market. Sadly, children and adolescents are the most vulnerable and the first to suffer the consequences of these phenomena. Now, the crisis is pushing millions of them towards child labor.

In the face of such a situation, we should ask ourselves, ‘Is it enough to celebrate and recognize the effort that a child or adolescent makes when they decide to support their family despite the obstacles, or should we go beyond that and demand that the State assume the responsibility of protecting children and adolescents from child labor that puts their health and safety at risk?’