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Chile's Salmon Industry Outlasts Striking Workers

by Steve Anderson
The Santiago Times, July 25, 2006

AquaChile Unions Vote To End Two-Week Strike

(US Four hundred and fifty striking workers at AquaChile voted Monday to end their two-week strike, which had reduced production at Chile's largest salmon plant by an estimated 40 percent. While company officials acknowledged the strike resulted in significant losses, they have not yet indicated an exact figure.

The strikers were mostly female processing line workers who were physically and financially exhausted by their strike effort. Facing the prospect that AquaChile would hire scab labor on Tuesday to replace them, as permitted under Chilean law, they voted to accept the company's final salary offer at press time - a base salary of 107,000 (US$200 per month) pesos plus a 4,000 peso yearly increase. The striking workers will also receive a $125,000 peso (US$230) 'end of conflict' bonus.

Salmon farming is one of Chile's most dynamic new export industries, with exports of US$1.7 billion in 2005. Based primarily in Puerto Montt, the industry has brought enormous international investment to southern Region X and unprecedented economic growth.

The salmon industry has thrived on southern Chile's pristine coastline, a lack of meaningful environmental regulation, and cheap labor. Chile is soon expected to outstrip Norway as the world's leading producer of farmed salmon.

While the strike received scant coverage in Chile's national media, it was front page news in the regional daily El Llanquihue and the first significant labor dispute to occur during the mandate of newly elected President Michelle Bachelet, a member of the Socialist Party (PS).

While Bachelet's political representative in Region X - Intendente Jaime Bertin - was mostly mute during the conflict, PS leaders such as (Region X) Sen. Camilo Escalona and Puerto Montt Mayor Rabindranath Quinteros were more outspoken in support of labor's demands.

The dispute turned nasty early Friday morning when seven strikers were arrested and twenty hurt (seven hospitalized) as 150 activists attempted to shut down the entranceway to the AquaChile salmon plant in Puerto Montt.

Company CEO Alfonso Marquez de la Plata defended the police intervention, saying, "we cannot negotiate when someone is holding a pistol to our chest." But he added that the company would not press charges against any of the strikers that tried to block access to the plant.

In another effort to draw more public and media attention to their demands, strikers last week announced a hunger strike by militants occupying Puerto Montt's main Catholic Church cathedral. Church officials initially said they would not allow the hunger strike to take place on Church premises, but then backed down.

The 450 salmon processing workers in the company's Unions #1 and #2 were demanding significant wage increases. The company refused, arguing that their wage scale for processing line workers was among the best in the industry. Worker turn over in the low-paid processing line work force (the workers who kill, gut and cut the salmon) is high at AquaChile, as it is in most all the region's salmon plants.

AquaChile CEO Marquez de la Plata insisted last weekend that his 2,000 employees earned an average of $350,000 pesos per month (US$750) - among the top in the industry - and that wage increases in the processing line should be tied to improved productivity. He also repeated his willingness to replace the 450 striking workers this Tuesday with scab workers, as permitted by Chilean law.

Union leaders disputed AquaChile's figures, saying the average process line worker takes home $150,000 per month (US$325). They argue that wages paid to their members account for just two percent of the company's overall costs, and that the company can and should do much better for its workers.

Puerto Montt Mayor Rabindranath Quinteros late last week admonished the company's perceived stubbornness in contract negotiations.

"We all praise the advances that have been made by the salmon industry, but this has to transform itself into positive development for the whole community, because workers need to receive what they deserve to receive," said Quinteros. "What the workers demand will cost 27,000 million pesos, while the company reported earnings last year of 27,000 million pesos. ... All we want is social peace."

Sen. Camilo Escalona, a close advisor to President Bachelet, also suggested the company could do better by its workers: "Let's just hope that the workers' demands are taken into account ... so that the salary demands the workers aspire to can be met."

Steve Anderson
Chile's Salmon Industry Outlasts Striking Workers
The Santiago Times, July 25, 2006

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