Tens of thousands of women employed as seasonal workers in rural areas of Chile suffer high levels of poverty and poor working conditions, even though their labour generates huge profits for agricultural exporters.
In 2013, Chile’s agro-exports amounted to nearly 11.6 billion
dollars. But most seasonal workers earned less than the minimum monthly
wage of 380 dollars a month.
Chile is ranked by international consultants as one of the world’s 25
fastest-growing countries and the second-fastest in the Organisation
for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which it joined in 2010
to become the only Latin American member along with Mexico.
And according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), it is
the country with the lowest proportion of informal labour in the Latin
American and Caribbean region.
Nevertheless, there are still casual and seasonal workers employed in precarious conditions, without basic labour rights.
“In Chile there is a large number of workers, and women in
particular, suffering precarious working conditions characterised by low
wages, a lack of job stability and a lack of legal protections because
they are subcontracted or outsourced, etc,” the minister of the National
Women’s Service (SERNAM) Claudia Pascual acknowledged.
And the situation is especially bad for women from poor urban neighbourhoods or rural areas, the minister told IPS.
“It’s not the same thing to be a poor woman, a Mapuche, Aymara or
Quechua [indigenous] woman, a rural woman, as it is to be a
professional,” Pascual added.
The amount of work done by seasonal workers skyrocketed in the 1980s
when fruit plantations and exports grew exponentially in Chile.
“The doors opened at that time for wage-earning work for women, who
at first were poor rural women,” said Alicia Muñoz, director of the National Rural and Indigenous Women’s Association (ANAMURI).
“But soon women began to migrate from the cities to the countryside –
women who became a skilled workforce and leaders of wage-earners in
rural areas,” she told IPS.
Today, between 400,000 and 500,000 Chilean women and men pick fruit
during the September to March harvest season in this South American
country of 17.6 million people. Half of the seasonal workers are women
and 70 percent of the women work without a contract, according to a
study by SERNAM.
Agriculture is Chile’s second largest source of exports, after copper mining.
Seasonal workers are mainly hired by middlemen – third-party job
brokers and contractors – in the mining, construction and fishing
But studies and experts concur that the most vulnerable of all are
women hired to pick fruit like grapes, apples, pears and peaches in
harvest season, due to the total lack of social and labour benefits.
ANAMURI’s Muñoz says the number of seasonal workers during harvest
time is higher than the official figure, and that it is actually above
700,000 people, a large proportion of them women, especially in the
“Today women mainly work on the fruit plantations,” she said. “You don’t really find women in vegetables anymore.”
The wages paid to seasonal workers have remained virtually unchanged
for two decades, because the increases were absorbed by the contractors.
“Wages have been stagnant for years, while the cost of living has gone up really fast,” Muñoz said.
So to earn enough money to get by the rest of the year, until the
next harvest season, women must “break their backs doing double shifts
[around 16 hours a day], to earn 800 or 1,000 dollars a month,” the
rural leader said.
As a result, “we have disposable workers, who as a result of
exhaustion and the effects of pesticides are sick and unable to work by
the age of 40 or 50.”
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