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Salmon Farm Workers Left Out in the Cold

by Ellen Hardy
3 September 2008, at 1:00am

SANTIAGO - Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are calling for an end to the expansion of salmon farming and solutions for thousands of workers who lost their jobs because of a crisis in the sector.

"We cannot continue to clean up the country's image at the expense of the workers. In the view of the outside world we are protecting the environment, but what are we doing within our country? Who will take responsibility for the families of the people who have been sacked?" asked Cecilia Millán, the head of the Chilean branch of Oxfam, an international relief agency.

Oxfam and the non-governmental Terram Foundation launched the second part of their "Not Afraid to Go against the Current" campaign on Monday. The goal is to draw public attention to poor sanitary, environmental and labour practices in the salmon farming industry, through advertising in newspapers and on the Internet, radio broadcasts and posters on public transport.

At a press conference, the two organisations called on the authorities not to allow further expansion of salmon farming from the Los Lagos region, located more than 1,000 kilometres south of Santiago, to the even more southerly Aysén and Magallanes regions.

According to statistics from the government of Michelle Bachelet, 474 salmon and trout farming concessions have been granted to date in Los Lagos, covering an area of 6,172 hectares. In addition, there are 391 pending applications.

In Aysén, 526 concessions covering 4,224 hectares are in operation, and the authorities are considering 1,141 new applications, which would spread over 10,806 hectares. In Magallanes, 41 concessions occupy 181 hectares, and there are 1,083 pending applications, which would take up an additional 13,323 hectares.

According to the authorities, there are only two areas still available for fish farming in Los Lagos, and 68 in Aysén.


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"We cannot continue to clean up the country's image at the expense of the workers. In the view of the outside world we are protecting the environment, but what are we doing within our country? Who will take responsibility for the families of the people who have been sacked?"
Cecilia Millán, head of the Chilean branch of Oxfam, an international relief agency

Chile is the world's second largest producer of farmed salmon and trout, after Norway. The industry enjoyed phenomenal growth following the introduction of both non-native fish species in the 1980s. In 2007, exports were worth over 2.2 billion dollars, and the sector had created an estimated 55,000 direct and indirect jobs.

However, in July 2007 fish farming was brought to an abrupt halt by the appearance of a lethal virus which causes infectious salmon anaemia (ISA), forcing companies to close a large number of processing plants and to slaughter all the fish in infected farms.

By Aug. 29, 2007, ISA outbreaks were confirmed on 25 Chilean fish farms. A further 16 farms were suspected to have ISA, 35 were fish-free and temporarily closed for disinfection, and another 81 were in quarantine, that is, no virus had been detected but these salmon farms were sealed off because they were near infected facilities.

An article titled "Salmon Virus Indicts Chile’s Fishing Methods," published in the New York Times on Mar. 27, 2008, dealt another blow to Chilean salmon farming.

As well as swingeing criticism of the sanitary conditions and environmental practices of some companies in the industry, the article lashed out at their inability to control the spread of ISA and their indiscriminate use of antibiotics.

The government went into action to defend the industry's international image, and created the Salmon Working Group, made up of authorities and experts and chaired by Economy Minister Hugo Lavados, who delivered a progress report on behalf of the group on Aug. 27.

Lavados said that changes in aquaculture sanitary regulations, environmental rules and import regulations for aquatic species, including salmon eggs, would be completed by December 2008.

The National Fisheries Service (SERNAPESCA) is to be strengthened in order to improve oversight of the fish farming industry, and an independent research study is to be contracted to define the carrying capacity of aquatic ecosystems affected by salmon farming.

"One of the current problems in salmon farming is the intensive use of antibiotics. Although they are permitted, we believe their use should be rationalised," the Working Group says in its report. As a result, a plan for using and managing antibiotics will be drawn up.

Oxfam and the Terram Foundation welcomed the measures proposed by the Salmon Working Group, they criticised the fact that no mention was made of the problems faced by thousands of workers dismissed because of the ISA virus crisis. "They have only solved half the problem. The other half is the workers," said Millán.

According to Lavados, more than 1,000 people were dismissed when fish farms and processing plants were closed. But the non-governmental organisations put the number closer to 3,000.

Millán said that over one month ago, the National Employment Directorate (DINAE) was asked for exact figures on job dismissals over the past year, but that so far no reply has been received.

Flavia Liberona, the head of the Terram Foundation, said her organisation asked the Salmon Working Group to address the employment situation in the sector, but they had declined to do so.

In 2007, the Chilean Salmon Industry Association (SalmonChile) reported that employers held talks with workers in Los Lagos.

"The talks have led to important progress towards future agreements in the areas of training, conditions for women workers, workplace safety and diving conditions," the document says.

The report also highlights educational, cultural and sports projects undertaken by SalmonChile in the communities and towns where its member companies operate.

But a large part of the wages received by salmon industry workers is calculated according to companies' production volume, even when factors other than the workers' own productivity, like the ISA virus, come into play, Liberona told IPS.

"If there is an epidemic, those who lose out most are the workers, not the company," she complained. Besides which, the industry has the country's second highest rate of workplace accidents: on average, one diver a month loses his life, she said.

The Terram Foundation, together with its partners El Canelo de Nos and the National Centre for Alternative Development Studies (CENDA), formed the Chiloé Labour and Environment Observatory (OLACH), based in Los Lagos, which has direct contact with salmon industry workers.

In spite of the crisis, in 2007 the export volume of Chilean salmon and trout grew by three percent, and the value of the exports increased by 2.6 percent, compared to 2006.

Ellen Hardy