A nationwide general strike has been called for Thursday 11 July by the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT) with the core aim of pressing for labour rights.
Workers will be marching under the banner "Now Workers for Justice and Equality in Chile”, a slogan determined by over 250 delegates from across the country at the latest Broad National Executive Council.
The action of the trade union alliance comes in response to the national presidential elections set for later this year and the total absence of workers’ issues on the agendas of the potential new governments.
Like the crucial issue of free public and quality education in Chile, the labour rights deficit also requires urgent attention, and the workers are determined to show the strength of their demands through unity and action.
The CUT has identified three key issues underpinning its call to action: tax reform, aimed at financing rights such as public health and education; a new labour rights framework, which covers public and private workers; and pension reform, to bring an end to the current AFP pension schemes run by private fund management companies.
"The right-wing government headed by Piñera has ignored labour and pension issues. These four lost years have led to more abuses, more inequalities and more injustice. As the country prepares to elect a new government and a new parliament, now is the time for a national debate addressing the issues on our Labour and Pensions Agenda," states the CUT’s strike call.
For the trade union coalition, resolving these three fundamental issues are key to progressing towards a more just and democratic nation that puts an end to inequality.
The first issue is the need for a new framework for labour rights that does away with the current labour law and clears the path for new legislation that regulates all workers – public and private – in the formal and informal economies.
This new legislation should be democratically drawn up and involve worker participation.
It should also address the imbalances of the current labour system, which has stripped the workers of their power, with deficient collective bargaining and no real right to strike.
While the employer or entrepreneur is equipped with a range of tools to ensure workers’ compliance (legal action, wage pressure, dismissal, etc.), the workers have no tools to ensure the employer’s compliance, and it is this imbalance that is keeping the situation as it is.
The labour legislation needs to place the two parties on equal terms, protecting and equipping the weaker party in the employment relationship, and that is the worker. In other words, power must be given back to the workers.
The second issue is the need for a new pension system, putting an end to the AFP.
The ‘Pension Fund Administrators’ (AFP) system was set up in 1982 by the economist José Piñera, who is the brother of Chile’s current president, Sebastián Piñera.
Thirty years on, the AFP has meant the expropriation of over 13 per cent of workers’ earnings.
The AFP’s own advocates have even admitted that 60 per cent of members will receive a pension of less than 150,000 pesos [approximately 300 US dollars] a month, despite workers’ contributions totalling 4.3 billion pesos [approximately 85.5 billion US dollars] in 2012.
For the CUT and many others, the AFP system has clearly failed, provides poverty-level pensions, and must be brought to an end.
The new system must be state-controlled, public, and non-profit making.
It should be based on shared contributions from the worker and the employer, and fair distribution. It should be a national system that collects, invests and pays out pensions, and under which declaring contributions but failing to pay them not only incurs a fine but also jail time.
The third issue underpinning the call for a general strike on 11 July is tax reform.
The current tax system no longer serves Chile’s needs, hence the imperative for a deep and real reform that puts an end to the absurdity of a national budget based on the taxes paid by workers and not taxation on companies.
Progress towards social justice urgently requires a real tax reform that generates the resources the country needs to invest in vital areas such as education, health and housing, a tax system that improves quality of life for Chile’s workers and their families, based on higher taxes for higher earners.
Finally, the minimum wage is another key issue on the table this week, with the CUT reiterating its demand for a wage floor of 250,000 pesos [almost 500 US dollars].
The call for a decent wage floor is gathering strength in a country where 25 per cent of the workforce earns no more than 199,000 pesos [approximately 395 US dollars], 50 per cent earns no more than 307,000 pesos [approximately 610 US dollars] and 80 per cent of workers, despite being in employment, cannot pull themselves out of poverty.