The use of sub-contractors has become endemic in Chilean copper mines. In 1980 the state copper company Codelco employed 28,000 workers on fixed contracts. Now only 18,000 work “direct”, and 33,300 work for sub-contractors – and the jobs which are “tendered out” are the same jobs that direct workers do.
Those that work for the subbies get only a quarter, or less, of the wages of the direct workers. Codelco have stated that subcontracted out workers get an average of 450,000 pesos a month – about £450 – nearly twice the country’s average wage.
But Codelco included the subcontracting companies’ bosses in the average. Take them out, and you see the figure drop to 250,000 pesos, the average weekly wage.
Meanwhile, the private copper companies – who also subcontract, and who produce 70 percent of Chile’s copper – sent 20 billion dollars of profits out of the country last year.
Anger over this situation that has given birth to the new subcontractors' union, the Confederation of Copper Workers (CTC). It tried to negotiate with Codelco for a year, but didn’t get anywhere. Andres Leal, one of the CTC’s leaders, said that thousands of workers throughout the country feel they’ve been taken for a ride by centre-left President Michelle Bachelet who was elected in 2006, and by Codelco, who have not lived up to their promises to put an end to “second class workers”.
Faced with the deafness and pigheadedness of Codelco, the workers of the CTC have organised a strike. The first step was to make sure the members were with the action.
'On Friday, we had a mass meeting to ratify the decision first in Codelco-North, then in Diego de Almagro, El Salvador and finishing up in Los Andes, Rancagua and Ventanas,” said Cristian Cuevas of the CTC.
The CTC says that the strike is solid, with 20,000 out and one of the mines occupied for a time. But the government’s spokesperson said, “There is no strike, because it would be illegal, and there’s no stoppage either”.
However confrontations with the riot police on the pickets outside the El Teniente mine woke the government up. Ten buses, ready to take non-striking employees in, were set on fire. Cristian Cuevas says “what happened was a result of the police state which they installed… they threatened us instead of giving us results.”
This had a role in getting the president to order Codelco to start negotiating. The second class workers in Chile’s state copper industry are not taking it lying down any more. And are already negotiating with their real employer.
Cristian Cuevas said, that the strike is still solid, in spite of all the pressure that Codelco is putting. And that the CTC no alone but is part of a political movement that wants to project the countries natural resources. On Wednesday 11 July, strikers and their supporters are due to march to show that they are still very much alive.