Pushed into the Workforce by Poverty, Many Guatemalan Children Struggle in School

Today is the 13th annual United Nations’ World Day Against Child Labor. Nearly 10 percent of Guatemalan children work before and after school to help their families make ends meet. Often weary and distracted, these children have trouble mastering their studies. Some drop out, questioning the practical value of an education in their communities’ economies.

Publication Date

Pushed into the Workforce by Poverty, Many Guatemalan Children Struggle in School

Brenda Leticia Saloj Chiyal, GPJ Guatemala

Cindy Xep, 12, on her way back from work. Cindy’s wages go toward her family’s basic needs.

Publication Date

SOLOLÁ, GUATEMALA — As she prepares for school, combing and tightly pulling back her black hair, 10-year-old Ana Coc explains that she works every morning as a nanny and maid so she can afford to replace her torn, tattered shoes in a few months.

Because of a congenital defect in her right foot, Ana walks with a limp. The big toe of her left foot pokes through the broken leather of the black shoe, turned gray by the dust of the dirt floor in the front patio of her home in Los Encuentros, a village in the western department of Sololá.

“I limp, and my foot gets really tired,” she says. “I can’t walk well, and I sometimes find it difficult to do the cleaning. The lady who I baby-sit for sometimes sends me on errands, and I do so, because then I buy shoes with my money.”

Ana wakes up at 5 a.m. Monday through Friday to help her mother sell food at a roadside stop. Then she works from 7 a.m. to noon at a family home, cleaning, looking after a 2-year-old and running errands, for 2.50 quetzales (33 cents) a day.

She estimates she will have to work for three months to be able to buy new shoes, which cost about 150 quetzales ($19.50).

After work, Ana, a fourth-grader, goes to school. She confesses that studying is difficult for her. Reading is especially challenging.

Ana has been working since she was 8.

Like many children who sell candy, serve in bars, shine shoes and baby-sit in Sololá, Ana suffers in school because she must spend so much time working.

For me, yes, I do like to work. My mom disagrees that I work, because she says I’m still little, but I see that my parents don’t have money and sometimes we don’t have anything to eat.

The number of children working in Sololá is increasing in line with high levels of poverty in western Guatemala. Teachers and experts warn that the trend deprives children of their full right to education; unable to keep up with classmates, working students make poorer grades – and they’re at high risk of dropping out.

Child labor is so common in Sololá that citizens rarely report it to the Municipal Office for the Protection of Infancy and Adolescence, the agency that investigates such complaints in Sololá. Still, the office’s findings validate the trend.

The agency registered only eight cases of child labor in 2014. In the first three months of 2015, it registered 14, says Quimberly Xaminez, an agency specialist who reviews registered cases and works with the children and their families.

Nationally, nearly 10 percent of children between the ages of 7 and 14 work in Guatemala, according to a report published in 2014 by the National Statistics Institute.

Nearly 9 percent of children in Central America and the Caribbean work, putting the region in a second-place tie with the Asia-Pacific region. The problem is most severe in sub-Saharan Africa, where 21 percent of children work, according to a report by the International Labor Organization, “Measuring Progress in the Fight Against Child Labor: Global Estimates and Trends Between 2010 and 2012.”

Child labor goes hand in hand with poverty, says José Aguilar Serrano, coordinator of the NGO Program of Assistance, Mobilization and Advocacy for Infancy and Adolescence, in Panajachel, a town in Sololá. Economic necessity forces many children in the region to start working at age 5 to help their families.

Seventy-four percent of Sololá residents live in poverty, according to a 2011 report by the U.N. Development Program. This means that much of the population fails to cover the cost of a basic food basket, which as of December 2014 was 3,236 quetzales ($424) a month.

Nationally, poverty increased slightly in recent years, from 66 percent in 2006 to 67 in 2011, according to the National Statistics Institute.

Today is the United Nations’ World Day Against Child Labor. Around 215 million children work, many full-time, around the world today, according to the U.N.

Working in childhood is associated with lower educational achievements, according to an International Labor Organization report prepared for World Day against Child Labor. Those who work in childhood also are less likely to secure stable jobs and are at greater risk of remaining outside the world of work altogether.

The report recommends that countries engage in early interventions to get more children out of work and into school, as well as to facilitate young people’s transition from school to decent work opportunities.

Cindy Xep, 12, washes laundry to help her parents make ends meet. Her workday starts at 7 a.m. In the afternoon she goes to school, where she attends fourth grade.

Cindy has been working since she was 10.

“For me, yes, I do like to work,” Cindy says at the entrance to her school, her swollen eyes wide open. “My mom disagrees that I work, because she says I’m still little, but I see that my parents don’t have money, and sometimes we don’t have anything to eat.”

Photos by Brenda Leticia Saloj Chiyal, GPJ Guatemala

Ana Coc, 10, works five mornings a week as a maid and baby sitter for a family in Sololá, Guatemala, to earn money for necessities.

Cindy Xep, 12, (right) is from Sololá, and goes to school in the afternoons. She spends all morning doing laundry in order to help her family survive.

Ana Coc (right) works five mornings a week babysitting and cleaning. She attends school in the afternoon, but she says her work responsibilities keep her from doing well in school.

Child worker Ana Coc says she’ll need three months’ wages to buy new shoes.

Cindy Xep, 12, washes clothes for a family in Sololá every morning.

Zoila Tzoy, 13, works every morning at a cafeteria to help her widowed father support her three sisters. Her father sells chuchitos, traditional Guatemalan tamales.

“My dad, since he sells chuchitos, doesn’t have enough money,” she says. “He doesn’t earn much, and the baby of the house still drinks milk, and [he] needs to buy [it].”

Olga Coc, 12, a classmate of Cindy’s and Ana’s, does not work, but she knows lots of kids who do.

“For me it is normal to see my classmates selling or working,” she says.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, declares that education is a fundamental human right, guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. But many countries fail to honor that right, according to UNESCO.

Carlos Rigoberto Pos Tuy, supervisor of the school district that Cindy and Ana attend – a district that includes 29 schools and more than 5,000 students – says work demands push children out of school.

In 2014, he says, 3 percent of district students were forced to drop out.

The overall dropout rate in Sololá was 3.2 percent in 2014, according to the Departmental Directorate of Education.

Rosalinda Chuc, a teacher at an elementary school in Los Encuentros, says working children can’t keep pace with their peers.

“Some come very distracted, lost in thoughts, very tired or very hyperactive, because their environment is different to that of others,” she says.

Chuc, who teaches Ana, Cindy and Olga, says working children often show signs of neglect.

“Normally, children with some kind of work always arrive very dirty, uncombed and very sloppy,” she says.

Cindy’s mother, Rosa Panjoj, says her daughter has trouble studying.

“The truth is that it has been a bit difficult for her,” she says. “Sometimes it is difficult for her to understand the subjects. Once she told me that if she couldn’t succeed this two-month period, she would quit studying, but so far she keeps going to school.”

Chuc says she requires all of her students to study hard and perform well. She doesn’t give children a break because they must work.

“I am a very demanding teacher,” she says. “And for me, I don’t care if the families are poor or if they work. What matters to me is that children do well and that they earn their grade.”

For some children, the working world has positive effects, such as imparting a sense of responsibility, Chuc says.

“Some, as they have matured enough to be independent, arrive well-dressed,” she says.

Selling goods, for instance, helps some working children do well in math, the teacher says.

Zoila, a fifth-grader who dreams of becoming a chef, thinks it’s good that children work because work teaches them things they don’t learn in school – things that will help them find employment in adulthood.

“The work is good, because if once someone graduates, they have to look for a job,” she says. “And if one can’t cook, they won’t get work.”

Dalia Xoquic, a psychologist who treats children and adolescents, says being forced into the working world deprives youngsters of their childhood.

“There are children who achieve a lot,” she says. “But these working children are always stressed. These children who work advance themselves in a world of adults, with more responsibilities. They practically don’t live their childhood.”

Ana’s employer, Candelaria Tuy, says children make good employees. First, she says, children are generally obedient and don’t talk back. Second, children are paid a lot less than adults.

While Ana makes 520 quetzales ($67) a month for 25 weekly working hours, an adult worker in the country who puts in 20 to 40 hours a week would earn around 1,674 quetzales ($216).

To combat child labor and protect children’s right to education, Sololá’s Municipal Office for the Protection of Infancy and Adolescence is following up on this year’s registered cases; the cases of Ana, Cindy and Zoila are not included in that list because they were never reported to the agency.

A follow-up consists of examining why a child works, interviewing the child and informing parents of children’s right to education.

The office’s goal is to protect the children from exploitation, and to help them and their families find a way to balance their work and their studies.

Ana claims to have found a way to improve her school performance. A young woman who works at a cafeteria near the house where Ana works has offered to help her study. So in the morning, Ana brings the baby she watches to the cafeteria, where she does her homework.

Cindy made an even bigger change to her work life for the sake of her studies.

Before she started washing clothes in early April, Cindy worked at a cafeteria where her workday began at 5 a.m. To get to work on time, she had to sleep at her employer’s house. She attended school in the afternoon and did her homework at night. But one day she fell sick, suffering a fever and diarrhea.

When she recovered, her mom decided she had to quit that job and take one that required fewer hours, she says. Her mom hopes she will do better in school with a shorter workday.

No sources in this article are related.

Fernanda Font translated this article from Spanish. Brenda Leticia Saloj Chiyal, GPJ reporter, translated an interview from Kaqchikel.