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CHILE: Salmon Industry Workers Demand Subsidies

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Dec 3 2008 (IPS) - Workers in Chile’s salmon industry are demanding that the national government grant assistance to thousands of the sector’s workers who have been laid off due to the sanitary crisis affecting the sector. With the aim of pressuring socialist President Michelle Bachelet, the workers have announced that they will soon begin a hunger strike.

On Tuesday, workers marched through the streets of the southern port city of Puerto Montt to protest the government’s uneven response to labour and corporate demands, trade unionist Doris Paredes told IPS.

Paredes, who is president of the Unified Workers’ Confederation (CUT) of the province Llanquihue, in the southern Los Lagos region, complained that the “companies’ demands were given an immediate solution, while we have been going to the government with our problems for the past year and a half, and we’ve received nothing but bandaid solutions.”

At a Nov. 28 meeting with business leaders, President Bachelet announced that her administration would inject 120 million dollars into the industry to finance guarantees that would facilitate access to bank loans by salmon farming companies.

The government predicts that the measure will have an impact of approximately 450 million dollars.

“We hoped that, on the one hand, the government would act as guarantee for salmon companies so that they could apply for loans, and, on the other, that it would grant subsidies to the workers that have had to leave the industry,” the president of the National Confederation of Salmon Workers (CONATRASAL), Javier Ugarte, told IPS.

According to CONATRASAL figures, some 6,000 people have been laid off over the last year, as a result of the fish farms and processing plants that have closed down due to infectious salmon anaemia virus (ISA) outbreaks.

Demonstrators at the march in the Los Lagos capital of Puerto Montt carried cardboard coffins to express how badly the situation has affected them. “For us, this is a funeral,” Paredes said.

Ugarte explained that CONATRASAL is asking for a family subsidy like the one granted by the government to the families displaced earlier this year by the eruption of the Chaitén volcano in the same region.

“The reasons behind this decision (to provide 120 million dollars in aid to the sector’s companies) have been misunderstood, because in no way can this be considered a cash donation to the companies; it’s been granted to safeguard jobs and prevent the situation from getting even more complicated,” Economy Minister Hugo Lavados told the local newspaper El Llanquihue on Monday.

Lavados announced that before Christmas the government would be implementing new measures to help the industry’s workers, although he explained that “we still have to examine which (subsidies) are feasible and which are not.”

Also on Monday, some local authorities, including the governors of Chiloé and Llanquihue, announced a number of measures in favour of the dismissed workers.

The salmon companies will offer the workers opportunities for training in other areas, between the months of January and March 2009, and the Housing Ministry and government-owned bank BancoEstado will be asked to refinance the debts and freeze payments owed by unemployed workers until they find a new job.

Training will also be provided in the construction industry so that the salmon workers who lost their jobs can join the Chiloé Public Works Plan that the government is conducting in the region.

Moreover, government bodies will step up their efforts to support any initiatives promoted by salmon workers and companies in the area.

But the workers see the proposed measures as just a “quick fix” and say they are not willing to wait any longer for real, long-term solutions. “We want to see these solutions announced within a week at the most,” Ugarte said.

To that end, CUT and CONATRASAL are organising two major marches for Dec. 9, one in Puerto Montt, and the other in Ancud, Chiloé, 1,000 kilometres south of Santiago.

Ugarte also told IPS that 50 industry workers were set to begin a hunger strike.

On Nov. 28, César Barros, head of the Association of Salmon Industry Companies (SalmonChile), issued a press release expressing how much the industry valued the 120-million-dollar aid plan.

“It is a very important sign of trust from the government to the salmon farming industry, reaffirming the viability of this activity,” said the statement.

According to the trade association leader, the industry “is doing everything possible” to avoid layoffs over the coming months and to devise conversion plans for communities of salmon industry workers.

“Last week the board of SalmonChile approved a series of measures that introduce radical changes in the salmon industry’s production process, and which will enable us to maintain our global leadership,” Barros said.

Among these, he highlighted “measures that concern all the stages of fresh water and sea water production – with strict stocking and harvesting controls – and a set of fish movement rules, including immunisation, stock certification, and elimination of broodstock and their progeny whenever necessary.”

“It is inadmissible that an industry that has grown at an annual rate of more than 22 percent in the last few years, with earnings of over 20 percent of its sales (500 million dollars) in 2007, and that has been characterised by poor environmental and labour practices, be benefited now with this new subsidy announced by the government,” the Terram Foundation, a local environmental group, declared in a press release.

“The salmon industry pays the government 0.05 percent of its exports for aquiculture concessions and receives subsidies to finance machinery imports and labour, among other costs,” the press release states.

“Any measure connected with this industry must be aimed at mitigating the social and environmental impacts generated by its current crisis; otherwise, the government will only be rewarding the sector’s bad practices,” the organisation asserted.

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