Chile: Labour and education protests intensify

The Chilean government is caught in a web of discontent as copper workers have joined striking port workers. Workers from the Chuquicamata, Radomiro Tomic, Salvador, El Teniente and Gaby mines, backed by staff at the head offices of the state-owned copper mining company Codelco, based in the capital city of Santiago, have expressed their discontent with the corporation’s management and its director, Thomas Keller.

On Wednesday, Codelco – which is the world’s largest copper producer – resumed operation after a 24-hour, all-out strike.

The federation representing Codelco supervisory and professional staff unions, FESUC, has seen a wave of dismissals over recent years, following an agreement on 2000 voluntary redundancies, designed to cloak the company’s stratagem to outsource key positions at the company and pave the way for its privatisation.

Speaking at a press conference, Ricardo Calderón, president of the FESUC, which represents employees in key positions at the company, expressed his members’ concerns.

"We are opposed to any restructuring process that seeks to outsource the tasks corresponding to CODELCO staff and to undermine the terms and conditions of employment, as well as all initiatives aimed at cutting costs by means of damage to persons."

It has been clarified that the strike is not about pay but grievances with the management model applied to matters such as employment relations, outsourcing, safety and security programmes and the privatisation of healthcare benefits.

The copper workers have denounced, for example, the privatisation of their pension schemes and are demanding access to a State Pension Fund Administrator (AFP) and a savings option that is not controlled by private agents.

They have called for measures to stop the export of copper concentrate and to promote science and technology and industrial development investments that would improve production processes and develop more copper smelting and processing operations on Chilean soil.

Calderón warned the Chilean government and its representatives not to "try to twist the motive for our action, linking it to the forthcoming elections; it is a problem we have as workers and as Chilean citizens, it is about demands around which copper workers are now uniting."

The call for a nationwide strike at Codelco comes in addition to a national protest held by students, who took to the streets on Thursday to demand "free and quality education", which could be indeterminately financed by copper earnings, among other measures fitting of a government claiming to be fair and just.

More than 100,000 people took to the streets to call for reforms to an education system which is characterised by underfunded public schools and expensive private universities. Students have been campaigning for several years, but this was the first nationwide protest of 2013.

It would seem that the banners bearing slogans such as "Copper Sky High, Education Rock Bottom" have entered the public consciousness, that workers are aware how high world copper prices are, and of the injustices still being faced by the peoples of Chile whilst the privatisation of this strategic resource continues to devour the coffers of the Chilean state.