El Salvador Migration Creates Labor Shortage

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The small Central American nation of El Salvador has one of the highest rates of migration to the U.S. in the region, creating a labor shortage at home. But El Salvador's competitive wages attract workers from its less well-off neighbors Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good Morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos.

The small Central American nation of El Salvador has one of the highest rates of migration to the United States in the region. And that's created an unusual problem - a labor shortage. But El Salvador's dollar economy and competitive wages attract workers from its less well-off neighbors - Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras.

Now, there's an immigration debate in El Salvador, a debate not unlike the one in this country.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Trucks, bicycles, and people lugging bags inch across a narrow bridge that stretches over the brown waters of the Guascoran(ph) River. It's hot and dirty at this border crossing between Honduras and El Salvador.

Guards barely glance at people's documents before allowing them through the languid wave.

30-year-old Wilmer Gomez from Tegucigalpa, Honduras is typical of the people from all over the region that come through here. He came looking for work, any kind of work.

Mr. WILMER GOMEZ (Honduran): (Through Translator) Because all the El Salvadorans have family in U.S. they don't have to work. But we come here with a lot of will. People from all the different countries come here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mainly to do menial jobs. Still, because El Salvador dollarized its economy in 2001, Gomez earns about double what he would make back home in the more valuable U.S. currency.

Mr. GOMEZ: (Through translator) The dollar is worth something in Honduras. We come here because the dollar is close. We don't need to go so far away. We see this as a state of the United States.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a saying in El Salvador: The United States is the dream of Salvadorans, but Salvador is the dream of the rest of Central America.

Mr. FRANKLIN GOMEZ (Nicaraguan): (Spanish spoken)

Franklin Gomez calls out to (unintelligible) Satan, which despite its name he says, is fairly tame. He's a muscled and tattooed 24-year-old from Nicaragua, near the other town of (unintelligible). For the past few moths though, he's been working on this farm with two other Nicaraguans in rural eastern El Salvador.

Mr. GOMEZ: (Through translator) They like us to come here, the bosses. They think we are good guys. Here we took care of cows, we work the fields, we clear the land, plant - everything.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The conditions are miserable. Three men sleep in torn hammocks strung up in a wooden shed. They cook beans and rice - all they can afford - in old cast iron pot. But he's making $6 a day. In Nicaragua, doing the same work, he'd make about two and a half. He says he'd rather go to the U.S. where he could earn much more, but...

Mr. GOMEZ: (Through translator) I don't have the money. If I had it, I'd go tomorrow. I wouldn't be here. It's too expensive. There is a coyote here who says he'll take us for $6,000. He goes every 15 days to take people. I can't even dream of having that much money.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The perception is that most people who travel illegally to the U.S. are among the poorest in their communities. But in fact, to get to the States is expensive and arduous. Those who undertake the journey are often better educated and have some financial resources.

El Salvador is the really poor man's American dream.

The borders are open. Residents of the five countries of Central America don't need passports to cross into one another's territories. And mostly, they are accepted and treated well because there is a desperate shortfall in farm labor. Estimates put the number of undocumented Central American workers here at about 200,000.

Paolo Nacer(ph) is the Deputy Director of the government's Migration Department.

For the past two years, El Salvador has actually implemented a guest worker program similar to the one in the United States. It's still small, but expanding.

Mr. PAOLO NACER (Deputy Director, Department of Migration-El Salvador): (Through translator) For us as a country, it's good because we have a labor force that will cultivate our fields so that during the harvest period we don't lose our crops.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Salvadorans, he says, are no longer willing or able to do those kinds of jobs.

Mr. NACER: (Through translator) Many of the people in the farming areas have migrated to the United States. Most of the people who stay behind are women with their children, who receive the remittances. The male labor force has left.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It has been an exodus. According to the United Nations Development Program, one in four families receive remittances in El Salvador, and that has transformed whole communities.

It's a lazy Sunday morning in the village of Chachawa(ph); a group of young men play soccer at a road that ends at the edge of a lush forest. The ball frequently lands in nearby fallow fields.

Their team is called Real Madrid, after the famous Spanish soccer club. And it's been facing a problem.

22-year-old Arnuldo Diaz says that as soon as the male team members get any good, they leave - which means it's been hard to win matches.

Mr. ARNULDO DIAZ (Soccer Player): (Through translator) They mostly leave their kids here and go north so that their children will be able to get an education.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So not only has the workforce gone north, there was now a better educated second generation left behind that often doesn't want to farm the land either.

20-year-old team member Giovani Maldonal(ph) doesn't think it's all for the best.

Mr. GIOVANI MALDONAL: (Through translator): That is why we are a country that is underdeveloped and doesn't progress. The people here are satisfied with what their families in the U.S. send them. We used to be one of the most productive countries in the region. Coffee, corn, rice. But now we see that our productivity is way down due to remittances.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So he doesn't want to farm the land like the people here did in years past either. Instead, Giovanni is studying English.

Mr. MALDONADO: We have a lot of opportunity in the future if you can speak English. I'm studying because someday I hope to speak in English very well, not like American people, but I try. I try.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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