(First published in Norwegian 15 Feb 2007)
By Erik Hagen
When the 300 employees at the Norwegian-owned Mainstream plant in Calbuco, Chile, demonstrated against the factory management in the beginning of February, car tyres were burned in front of the plant’s main entrance. The strikers were fed up with low wages and unpleasant mid-level managers.
The parties quickly agreed to enter into a dialogue, and the employees called off their protest. But the most important demand, the wages, was never discussed in talks with the company management. On the contrary, the number of working hours was reduced in such a manner that the employees now are saddled with lower wages than in January.
“Far Below the Standard”
According to the trade union manager at the salmon-processing plant in Calbuco, Williams Rebolledo, the salaries at the Mainstream plant are extremely low compared with similar plants in Chile. Now they are even lower.
“This is a scandal. We still have far to go before we’ll get the standard wage in this field in Chile”, Rebolledo told Norwatch on the phone. He said they are forced to wait until June before the salaries will be discussed in rounds of joint negotiations. Mainstream is owned by Cermaq, in which the Norwegian government owns 43% of the shares.
No Overtime Pay
The basic salary at the plant is, according to the union, 125,000 and 149,000 Chilean pesos. That is equivalent to between 181 and 256 euros monthly. The minimum wage in Chile is about 200 euros. In addition to the basic salary, the employees receive bonuses in accordance with how much they produce at the plant. The bonus has a ceiling of 75 euros.
During the negotiations with the company after the last strike, the workers had to accept even worse conditions than previously, Rebolledo told Norwatch. Instead of giving the employees increased wages, the company has reduced the number of working hours permitted. Since the bonuses and overtime pay have been such an important part of the wages, the reduction in hours entails that the paycheck will be smaller.
Previously the employees worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, to earn enough overtime pay. Now the possibility of overtime pay has been removed, and the workday limited to 7.5 hours.
Union representative Rebolledo estimates that the wages previously averaged 313 euros, including overtime. They have now decreased to approximately 263 euros. “It was by means of the overtime pay that we barely managed to earn enough to feed our families; now this has become almost impossible,” he concluded.
The reduction in the number of working hours makes more difficult to reach the production goals that trigger the bonus. The workers must either accept earning even less than previously or work even faster.
Juan Carlo Cárdenas, manager of the Chilean environmental organisation Ecoceanos, is not surprised. Cárdenas has kept up with the protests in Calbuco. “In Chile workers seldom strike, because then the conditions just become even worse,” Cárdenas told Norwatch.
“Cermaq has no comment to these allegations. The conditions to be considered are discussed by our management in Mainstream Chile,” Geir Sjaastad, deputy CEO of Cermaq, wrote in an e-mail to Norwatch.