Seasonal Agricultural Workers Left Out of Chilean Boom

(IPS) – 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 industries.

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 fruit harvest.

“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.”

In Chile, seasonal work is not a choice, but the only option for many, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), whose regional office is based in Santiago.

“The workers end up poor and worn out because of their health problems,” Muñoz said. “Most of the women seasonal workers are heads of households, which means they have to find other work to tide them over the months in between harvests.”

FAO regional representative for Latin America Raúl Benítez told IPS that when food insecurity patterns are studied, “you realise that women suffer the problem in a different, more marked, way.”

For that reason, he added, “we have been actively working with the different women’s organisations and civil society groups involved in these issues.”

During the campaign for the elections that put her back into the presidency in March, socialist President Michelle Bachelet promised to push for improvements of a controversial bill to create a statute for seasonal workers, which according to the groups would merely institutionalise precarious labour conditions in the sector.

The bill emerged during Bachelet’s first term (2006-2010) and was modified by her right-wing successor Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014).

It would make it possible for employers and workers to negotiate individual agreements, without the need for collective bargaining through a union, and would not require contracts guaranteeing the labour rights of workers.

“We rejected that statute during President Bachelet’s first administration because it was not heading in the direction that we had proposed,” Muñoz said. “In the last four years, things have gotten much worse, because the origin of the bill changed and it has become more about the needs of business than about the needs of workers.

“Fortunately we were listened to by lawmakers and politicians, and the statute gradually began to be left behind,” she added.

Now, the organisations are getting ready to participate in new talks convened by the government to address the problems facing seasonal workers.

“They called us and we are going to sit down to discuss the issue in an integral manner, for business interests to be set aside and for the needs of Chilean workers to finally be put on the table,” said the head of ANAMURI.

These women, many of whom are the only source of income in their families, sometimes work for two or three months during the summer, while others work for longer periods – four to eight months.

In the case of men, it is almost exclusively students who work in the harvests.

There are also women who figure as seasonal workers but actually work 10 or 11 months a year for the same employer, but on short-term contracts, which means they are not entitled to labour benefits like severance pay.