Chile: The third-world labor reality of the salmon export industry

CHILE: La tercermundista realidad laboral de la industria exportadora de salmón
Argentina ban installation of salmon industry in National Parks
  • The work system in the salmon industry that operates in Chile encourages self-exploitation and overwork, since the monthly salary is associated with the worker’s production volumes.
  • It is necessary to observe dumping practices that would be distorting international trade, and that threaten the objectives of the United Nations regarding the protection of the oceans, and that directly impact the coastal communities in the South of Chile.
  • Only social mobilization and organized citizen pressure, together with actions in the markets where industrial salmon is consumed, will allow the creation of the necessary political will for the Chilean State to stop this abusive and third world labor reality.

Juan Carlos Cárdenas N.
Director of Ecoceanos Centre
August 01, 2021

The Chilean Salmon Council (CSCh), an association made up of the largest producers of farmed salmon worldwide, has published its first report on employment in this mega industry established four decades ago in our country. The members of the CSCh are the transactional Mowi, owned by the Norwegian businessman John Fredriksen and the Groupe Bruxelles Lambert (Belgium); Cermaq, a subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi; AquaChile, belonging to the Agrosúper holding company owned by the Vial family; and Salmones Aysén, by businessman Pablo Baraona and American company Icicicle Seafoods.

When salmon do not allow workers to be seen

This descriptive report was prepared from the information reported by the four member companies of the Chilean Salmon Council, and has only a partial scope as it does not include the companies that represent 57% of the national salmonid production, and exclude information about workers in cultivation, processing, logistics providers, food, technology services and transportation.

It is curious that despite the fact that industrial salmonid monocultures have more than three decades of sustained productive and territorial expansion in Chilean waters, which have transformed the country into the second world producer with 30% of global supply, this is the first report corporate on employment, which in turn does not refer to the quality or working conditions of its 34,000 workers.

Outsourcing and job insecurity

Currently, 40% of workers in the salmon industry work through various subcontractors. In them, temporary and precarious jobs prevail, in the form of fixed term job. This asymmetric contractual relationship allows the client salmon companies to reduce costs, while disclaiming responsibilities in their usual environmental, health and labor crises. For their part, subcontractors maximize their profits by taking advantage of the low bargaining capacity of workers, given the high regional and national unemployment rates.

This situation leaves workers socially unprotected, unable to unionize and participate in negotiations to defend their rights and improve their living and working conditions. This expression of «savage capitalism» contrasts with that existing in Norway, the world’s leading salmon producer, where 52% of workers are union members in a context where the State recognizes democratic and social rights (1).

Chile: Where the salmon farming industry presents the global record for labor mortality

The Ecoceanos Centre, together with the Federation of Salmon Workers of Quellón, Chiloé archipelago (Fetrasal), and the National Confederation of Salmon Workers (Conatrasal), are denouncing the precarious working conditions in this export industry (2), having registered the death of more than 60 salmon workers between 2013 and 2021, the most affected being divers and workers in maritime and land transport.

Approximately 6 thousand divers work in Chilean aquaculture. 90% of them have a basic shellfish diver license, as they come from artisanal fishing. Many of them do not have the necessary training, and the appropriate implements to work up to 30 meters deep in the 3,500 rafts-cages distributed over almost 2,000 km. linear coastline in southern Chile.

These underwater workers, along with performing rapid cycles of successive daily dives without the vital decompression and rest time practices -characteristics of “yo-yo diving” – must participate in activities unrelated to their specialty at the culture centers, such as such as carrying bags of food, cleaning and carrying water, or preparing food.

The verification of this serious reality is expressed in the first three months of 2021 when three divers have died in the Aysén region, evidencing the lack of security and supervision, and the lack of government controls in the Patagonian regions.

Blood Salmon from the south of the world

The outsourcing of diving services in the salmon industry is responsible for the prevailing job insecurity and high accident rates with disabling consequences and death. This labor reality typical of a third world country, places Chile as the producer-exporter of farmed salmon with the highest mortality rate in this industry worldwide.

Added to this is the fact that Chilean salmon farming has the lowest wages and the longest working hours in this industry globally, a reality that contrasts with that existing in the Norwegian salmon industry, where only the death of one diver is recorded between in 2012 and 2018.

Masking occupational diseases

High risk health conditions in fish farms and intensive salmonid farming centers are added to the high rates of occupational accidents, caused by the massive and intensive use of a great diversity of chemical substances, such as antimicrobials, antiparasitics, carcinogenic antifungals (green malachite and violet crystal), antifouling paints based on copper and heavy metals, as well as 36 types of disinfectants whose active compounds are hydrogen peroxide, chlorine dioxide and peracetic acid.

The work system in salmon farming and processing plants encourages self-exploitation and overwork, since the monthly salary is associated with the worker’s production volumes. The consequence is the existence of a high prevalence of disabling musculoskeletal diseases among workers in industrial processing plants, which are associated with long and strenuous days of standing work, performing repetitive manual activities at continuous speed under conditions of high humidity and low temperatures.

For their part, in the cage rafts of the salmon farms, the divers work long periods without adequate decompression and rest practices, suffer diseases such as otic barotrauma, dysbaric osteonecrosis, acute sinusitis and neuromuscular diseases, in a context of lack of insurance of disability and lack of a specific employment status.

In this health-labor context, the workers’ organizations denounce the agreement between the Security Mutual and the salmon companies so that the medical attention of tendonitis, carpal tunnel, lumbago, or rotator cuff injuries covered by the premiums, are not classified as occupational diseases. It is interesting to note that the Security Mutuals, client companies and subcontractors do not carry out preventive education actions to reduce accidents and eliminate the very high occupational fatalities, or place hyperbaric medicine at the disposal of underwater workers.

Labor and maternity rights of women salmon workers

33% of Chilean salmon farming workers are women, who represent 45% of direct employment in processing plants. The workers denounce violations of their gender and labor rights, together with the lack of maternity protection, which is expressed in the lack of nursery schools.

Pregnant workers are considered «not very productive», for which the supervisors seek to force them to leave the company, assigning them night hours, long hours of standing work in cold and humid environments, or difficulties are placed on the time to breastfeeding, or with permits for medical check-ups.

It is surprising that the State’s supervisory bodies show great passivity in the illegal “purchases of the maternal jurisdiction” from pregnant workers, a practice that in the case of transnational companies is unpresentable, as they are considered a felony, in countries where their headquarters are located.

In addition to the salary differences and long working hours in peak harvest periods, the practices of maximizing labor exploitation are added by restricting the use of health services to female workers, without considering the frequent symptoms of urinary infections that occur. They are associated with long working hours at low temperatures and high humidity.

Anti-union practices and labor double standard

The workers’ organizations of the salmon cluster denounce the existence of anti-union practices of the salmon business in conjunction with the authorities and government officials of the labor and health services, tending to obstruct the workers organization and intimidate those who fight against abuses and the precariousness of their labor rights.

The practices reported are the use of multiple Fiscal Identification Numbers to evade audits or legal responsibilities; creation of parallel negotiating groups related to the company during salary negotiations; “black lists” of workers who organize unions, and existence of joint committees controlled by the companies. This explains the 14% unionization in the salmon industry, with the percentage of those who bargain collectively being a minority.

The participation of some multinational companies in these practices is surprising, applying double labor, environmental and health standards in violation of the Guidelines for Multinationals of the Organization for Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Violation of labor rights in maritime salmon transport

The transport fleet for live salmon and supplies has 729 vessels. Among them 54 well boats, whose number has been increasing steadily since 2020. In these services there is a growing presence of Norwegian capital.

The Federation of Officials of Merchant and Special Ships of Chile (Fenasiomechi) is fighting to implement minimum security provisions according to the guidelines and recommendations of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). In turn, it promotes the bill (bulletin 13756-02) to modify Decree Law 2222 on Navigation and be able to establish responsibilities in the face of frequent fatal collisions between salmon farming vessels and fishing boats, due to the use of automatic pilot in the inland waters of Chiloe, Aysen and Magallanes (3).

The sub-standard safety conditions and the lack of supervision in this fleet is evidenced in the fact that between 2013 and 2018 the well-boats “Seikongen”, “Amadeo”, “Orca- Yagan, the barges «Valentina», «ArtRigov», and «Rotundo».

In turn, Fenasiomechi demands decent wages, since their salaries are 25% lower than the market standard, as well as compliance with the labor code in relation to working hours and hours of rest, according to resolution 1047 / 2011 of the IMO, which is not complied with by the shipowners, with the complicity of the maritime and labor authorities (4)

Salmon, social dumping and the international market

The new context of political, social and cultural transformations in Chile constitutes an opportunity to build a broad alliance between the socio-environmental movement, workers’ gender and human rights organizations, as well as coastal communities and indigenous peoples (5), with consumer organizations in international markets, where more than 80% of Chilean industrial fisheries and aquaculture production is destined.

Only the social mobilization and citizen pressure organized in Chile, together with actions in markets such as the North American, – which represents 36.5% of the value of national salmon exports -, will allow the creation of the necessary political will, to that the Chilean State stop this abusive and third-world labor reality, at the same time calling on NGOs, importers, retail, consumers and international markets to be aware about unfair commercial practices based on situations of social, health and environmental dumping, that distort international trade, and threaten the oceans, human rights and decent work.