Chilean work minister shares undercover grape picking ordeal

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Chilean work minister shares undercover grape picking ordeal

Chile's Work and Welfare minister Evelyn Matthei warned the agricultural industry that workers would leave to the mining and service sectors  if working conditions didn't improve.

She told delegates at Chile PMA's Fresh Connections conference last week the mining industry was currently looking to recruit an extra 60,000 people.

Matthei spoke of her own undercover experience as a grape picker in Monte Patria in the IV (Coquimbo) region.

"The owners didn't know who I was. They taught me how to pick the fruit. There was no bathroom there and we didn't have a covered place to to eat lunch."

However, she said the government was not in the business of penalizing companies, preferring to give employers a second chance to fix up issues before resorting to a fine.

"In the end it's vital that you treat your people OK because if you don't you will have no workers. We need good compliance with standards."

The minister also said the government was trying to encourage more women to enter the labor market, noting unemployment among young women was three times greater than the national average.

"Let's see what we can do to train women in areas where there are shortages of labour. We will issue a subsidy for working women, not just the minimum salary; they will get more money so that they're encouraged to go to work."

She admitted when fruit was ripe for picking then a 10-hour day would be necessary and current labor laws were insufficiently inflexible.

Matthei also said Chile was at a point where economic growth had led to rising wages, which meant the country could no longer rely on cheap labor as a competitive edge.

"We are at a social crossroads, society is calling for greater equity and more opportunities for progress. We have to manage this in a responsible manner."

Matthei was critical of Chile's Sence training scheme which cost the government US$30 billion but has failed to improve participants' employability or income.

The minister said 35 government officials went to Oceania last month looking at Australia and New Zealand's approach to training.

"These are countries that have developed on the basis of agriculture and mining and these industries are very well organized."

She said that they were involved in developing the curriculum for certificates which were universally recognized by employers as a valid qualification in the work place.

"If you tell us what type of person you need, when and how, we will work with you but I am not prepared to train someone if there no proof that they learnt something."

Matthei said it was vital for Chile to improve its productivity in line with salaries and national aspirations for progress.

"We produce about a third of what a Mexican achieves in the work place in the U.S. We are trying to change the whole training system so that it's useful to you."

Related stories: Chile looks to NZ for ag labor visa inspiration

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