As far as working conditions in South America go, Chile is the gold standard. According to the Economist, “Chile has long stood out in Latin America for the seriousness of its economic policies … [this] reputation helped it to be invited to become the first South American member of the OECD, a club of mainly rich countries, in 2010.” Bolstering this reputation is that the minimum wage in Chile currently set at 276,000 pesos ($447 USD) which gives workers the chance to set up basic living conditions and support their families. The positive news out of Chile is relatively recent, with the World Bank reporting, “between 2000 and 2015 the population living in poverty (on US$ 4 per day) decreased from 26 percent to 7.9 percent.”
With a population under 18 million it has been a stable force in the region. By and large, labour laws have been enforced, minimum wages are paid, public education and healthcare is available, children under 14 do not work and proper safety regulations are taken in necessary industries. However, is all this changing? In recent years the population of immigrants, from countries such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia and Peru, has exploded. In fact, PDI (Policía de Investigaciones) reports that 104,782 Haitians immigrated to Chile in 2017, while in 2016 only 48,783 Haitians moved to Chile — a 114% increase. With unstable situations in their home countries or grim financial futures, people are risking everything to start over in Chile. While many are professionals who come legally with work contracts in place and are thusly protected, many have forked over their life savings to coyotes to smuggle them across the border illegally in extremely difficult and dangerous situations: across areas speckled with landmines, through precariously dangerous mountains or through the driest desert in the world. Many enter on tourist visas and hope for a job contract before the tourist visa runs out. For the first time in their history Chile is dealing with a rapidly expanding immigrant population, with outdated and sometimes non-existent laws to govern the situation.
For those entering the country illegally, job prospects are extremely limited and workers might find themselves being taken advantage of: for example, working illegally long hours picking fruits and vegetables, being paid under minimum wage, lacking access to healthcare and living in tenement situations with numerous other illegal immigrants. These situations are especially dire for Haitians who are unable to speak the language and have very little power to negotiate their situations.
When immigrants enter under a tourist visa, they are often met with a job market that isn’t quite as open as they’d hoped. For Haitian immigrants seeking work is not as easy as it is for their Spanish speaking counterparts, and they resort to working in the “gray market” sometimes selling goods in markets without permits or working under the table in shady situations, hoping their expired tourist visas aren’t discovered. Spanish speaking immigrants often find their job prospects limited or in areas they have no experience – construction and domestic work have become popular options and until workers are legal some companies have played fast and loose with safety regulations, even delaying the contract process so they won’t have to pay minimum wages. Professionals migrating have accepted jobs many years below their experience level or in vastly different fields just for the visa.
While the immigrant population of Chile remains quite small, under 3% of the total population, the numbers are growing at a rapid rate — especially as immigrating to countries like the United States becomes more difficult. With severely outdated immigration laws it is of utmost importance that the incoming government set up policies and procedures that protect all workers.