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Labour market, migration and economic growth in Chile 

Marcelo Charlín

Media coverage of the 33 miners trapped underground after the collapse of a Chilean copper mine in August 2010 flooded the news for 80 days until they were finally rescued. In contrast, during the same period, no attention whatsoever was paid to the death of approximately 60 men and women due to labour accidents in Chile, at a rate of 1.5 persons per day, according to official figures. Some analysts estimate the actual rate to be twice as high, if counting those deceased as a consequence of labour-related illnesses not recognized as such by either health authorities or employers. Chile’s economy has been growing at a fast pace, but how sustainable is its development if advances are made at the cost of precarious work conditions, notably among women?

Despite the fact that over the past two decades Chile has been making steady progress toward development, poverty and socio-economic inequality remain pervasive and much remains to be accomplished to better integrate minority groups into Chilean society. This is particularly noticeable when examining the labour conditions of women in the lower-income sectors, especially in two sensitive sectors: domestic service, in which almost all workers are women, and agro-industry, in which women account for 76 per cent of the labour force, a quarter of whom are young and are heads of household.

Peruvian young migrant women have long been attracted by the growing demand for domestic labour that followed Chilean women’s increased entry in the labour market. It is assumed in the contract, whether formal or informal, that a woman is endowed with a “natural” competence to take care of children, independent of age and socio-economic origin. Therefore, the care-taking function, defined as the main component of the job description, does not require any specialized training or specific skills on the part of the applicants. For the migrant woman, this type of work translates into having two families: the Chilean family by which she is hired and for which she will be subject to precarious and strenuous working conditions, and her own family back in Peru that awaits the remittances. Thus, Peruvian women employed as “nannies” take on two functions: the equivalent of a productive function in their home country since remittances are often the only source of income for their family, and a reproductive function by taking care of small children because they support their host family’s endurance.

Other migration flows that follow the law of supply and demand in the labour market are linked to the emergent phenomenon of massive internal migration between regions of the country. Yet, because of considerable distances —roughly 3,000 kilometres separate Chile’s North and South boundaries— Chilean migrants may not reach some particular regions’ demand for labour while their Peruvian counterparts can.

In the case of the agro-industrial sector, Chilean women move from one province to another with their family, either as head of household or following their husbands and joining the labour market in the destination region. In both cases these families normally have young children and settlement expectations. Given that the internal labour demand that they follow is centred on agriculture, involving both land and sea farming, they are exposed to unexpected risks such as production stoppages and massive unemployment.

A particularly dramatic case that illustrates this situation occurred in the salmon industry in the southern end of Chile, where families had been massively attracted by the labour demand of the salmon farms, leaving behind social and extended family networks to get precarious jobs; it is appalling that some women used diapers due to restrictions on the use of restroom facilities during working hours. The salmon industry underwent a crisis that reached its peak at the end of 2009: a viral infection caused the shutdown of the breeding farms and left almost 30,000 single-parent and nuclear families without resources to cover their basic needs. The consequences for women and children were not limited to the direct financial impact of unemployment. Small children often had to be left unattended at home, leading to child abuse and accidents in some instances, while some adolescents fell prey to drugs and prostitution. Also, given the massive number of resident migrants, the host region was not prepared to provide the required social services —schooling, health care, public transportation, etc. Many families were left in despair.

According to some union leaders interviewed during fieldwork conducted in the aftermath of the salmon industry crisis early 2010, the shutdown of the farms was due to an environmental depletion allowed by managers and company owners blinded by immediate booming export returns. Salmon farming had grown to be the third-largest contributor to Chile’s GDP until it fell victim to its own short-sightedness, namely its reliance on two main resources to produce high capital accumulation rates: the exploitation of labour and the depletion of environmental capacity to sustain the breeding.

The questions that remain open are to what extent is Chile’s overall economic growth sustainable, and in what ways is the labour force affected by the economic growth strategy, especially women? The country’s economy has boomed in a largely unregulated context, leaving the labour market and industry to operate freely, with no oversight or control by government agencies. 

Both questions point to the issue of the sustainability of Chile’s development in the long term, especially when one observes that social integration, inequality reduction and poverty alleviation lag significantly behind economic advances.

Marcelo Charlín is Director of the Centre for Sociological Research at the University of Valparaíso. The author can be contacted at marcelo.charlin@uv.cl.

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