Vacation Vignette #2: The Minimum Wage in El Salvador

August 24, 2006

Okay, so I had one squabble with DH’s mother’s husband over the minimum wage in El Salvador. (Sorry, I can’t help myself.) The country raised the minimum wage last week — hence, why we even discussed it — to $154 a month for migrant workers and $156 a month for everyone else.

In my eyes, these wages are pathetic because goods in El Salvador cost American currency and what they would in the United States, if not, more. A pair of jeans with a fashionable leather belt? $135. A gallon of regular unleaded gas? $3.50. A desayuno tipico, or Salvadoran breakfast of eggs, rice and beans, at the Guatemalan chain San Martin? $6.

DH and I are convinced that the country’s least paid citizens never eat out, must live in the champas, or the rural areas in hut homes, and depend on charity for items such as clothing. Maybe the sweatshops — which are in abundance there — let them take home some of their goods. (Yeah right!)

Don’t get me wrong. It has been heartening to witness the flourishing of businesses and restaurants — jobs — in San Salvador the last six years. I can even get goods that didn’t exist there even a few years ago like organic produce and soymilk.

But, again, these items are similarly priced to those I find in California — yikes! And what bothers me is that there are so many American and European franchises. They must make hand over fist money — in dollars — considering they are obligated to pay their Salvadoran employees no more than $156 a month.

My MIL’s husband is obviously proud of the progress his country has made in terms of job creation. Even my MIL boasted: “We have immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua coming here to work,” she said.

But his tired right-wing lines of why the country can’t have a cap on work hours — manual laborers toil from dawn until sunset and often six and even seven days a week –or an hourly minimum wage, were irritating.

“By keeping the minimum wage low, businesses can hire more workers,” he told me. “Do you know how many farmers have lost their lands because they couldn’t afford to pay their workers?”

Which leads me to my last point: Maybe I am just this idealistic, clueless American, but I have yet to see mass closings of small businesses every time we have had minimum wage increases in this country. In fact, except for one state Republican Party operative, everyone in this California Vallejo Times-Herald article — including a small business owner — seemed to think Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent $1.25 minimum wage hike didn’t go far enough.

“In my eyes as a business person, I’ve known people who have worked for minimum wage, and I feel California’s cost of living is too high to get by at that wage,” said Verna Mustico of Vallejo’s Mustico Realty.

The minimum wage raise agreement ends a stalemate between Democratic lawmakers and the governor, who had wanted to raise the minimum wage $1 per hour over two years. The accord was reached after Democrats dropped demands for annual cost of living increases to keep up with inflation.

Schwarzenegger, who vetoed two previous attempts to raise the state’s minimum wage, called the compromise “a common sense solution,” that won’t ruin the state’s economy.

It seems to me the only people who oppose minimum wage hikes are those folks who don’t have to subsist on it.