Guatemala has the highest income (GDP) of any Central American country, but also a great disparity between the small wealthy class and the majority of poor workers. Approximately half of Guatemala’s population works on the land, though agriculture accounts for only one-quarter of the country’s income. Most rural families keep livestock and grow maize, rice and beans for their own use or the local market; many people also have to work on plantations. The main agricultural exports are coffee, sugar, bananas, cotton, chicle (the basis for chewing gum), other fruit and vegetables, flowers, spices (particularly cardamom) and citronella.

The country’s second-largest employer is the service sector. Industry employs about 15% of the workforce, mostly in factories that produce machinery, textiles, chemicals, and fuels such as petroleum and electricity. Some metals and stones such as silver obsidian (volcanic glass) and jade are also mined. Factories called maquilas, set up in tax-free zones, have attracted foreign capital and produce brand-name products sold in North America, the country’s largest trading partner. Most workers are women, who make less money than their male co-workers and labour under poor conditions, with long shifts and intimidating management practices. Office workers enjoy better conditions and some social security benefits, but are also affected by the cuello (collar), the "old boy" network that ensures jobs and promotions are given on the basis of family relationships or political affiliation.

Farmers also face difficulties, since only about half are able to work their own land. Many rural workers spend up to seven months a year working on vast plantations or fincas; often this means leaving home to work in the coastal areas.

Although many rural women do not work outside the home, some earn income by selling crafts and produce. In Mayan families, the woman is often an important breadwinner. Career women are relatively common in large cities. Working women must also maintain responsibility for the family’s cooking and cleaning, though other family members help with childcare and housework.

  Did you know?
Mayan weavers use the indidenous telar de mano or backstrap loom to make items such as scarves, blouses and blankets. Made of sticks, the loom has a backstrap that secures it around the weaver’s hips. The weaver sits or squats in a position that gives tension to the loom’s strings.

  Did you know?
The Guatemala highlands produce some of the world’s best coffee, which is available in Canada. Much labour is still done on plantations by hand.