LATIN AMERICA An army of 80,000 aimed point-blank at Chile’s heart

Oct 01, 2007 | 12:57 PM |

A recent strike by contract workers at state-owned Corporación Nacional del Cobre de Chile (Codelco) has thrust the country's labor laws into the spotlight as discontent with the use of subcontract labor bubbled over into outright conflict.

High metal prices have agitated workers in Chile, and elsewhere, to demand a larger slice of the pie as companies rake in bigger profits. Strikes are relatively rare in Chile, but a 25-day strike at Minera Escondida Ltda. in August 2006 was followed by a four-day strike at the Dona Ines de Collahuasi copper mine, majority owned by Xstrata Plc and Anglo American Plc, in July this year, just days after Codelco contractors began their 37-day industrial action.

Times appear to be changing. "The current awakening of Chilean workers dates from (the Escondida strike in) August 2006 that showed that organized workers can leave behind decades spent waiting for change and win their justified demands," Pedro Marin, director of the Miners' Federation of Chile, wrote in the Socialist Worker newspaper.

Emboldened by the success of mineworkers' unions, the Confederation of Copper Workers was formed in June to represent up to 80,000 contract workers providing services at Chile's mines who receive only about one-third of the pay and fewer social benefits than directly employed workers, even when they do the same work, Marin said. Contract workers "have been forgotten for decades."

Following its Codelco success, the Confederation of Copper Workers is focusing on consolidating itself as a representative body for contract workers and assessing how to take on private-sector mines, Cristian Cuevas, union president, said. "We are studying the reality (of contract labor) in the private mines as we cannot mobilize without knowing what that reality is. But we will continue to build our influence in private mines."....

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