The Sins of the Salmon Industry
By Gustavo González *
Salmon farming in Chile, second in the world only to Norway, represents 30,000 direct jobs. But NGOs denounce the industry's labor practices.
SANTIAGO - Long criticized for its environmental impacts, Chile's profitable salmon farming industry is now being accused of violating labor, gender and indigenous rights.
The report ''Salmon Culture and Human Rights: Systematic Violation'', presented this month by the Oceana Foundation, received a harsh response from SOFAFA, an industrial development association, which called it a ''pseudo-study'' and said the international environmental non-governmental organization is financed by competitors of the Chilean salmon producers.
Oceana's investigation, conducted by attorney Ariel León based on previous reports and testimonies that he gathered himself, concluded that the salmon industry violates constitutional standards in seven areas.
There are breaches of civil, political social, economic and cultural guarantees, says the NGO, which also denounced the restrictions on freedom to organize into unions as well as wage discrimination, and violations of the rights of indigenous peoples, of women, and of consumers in terms of food safety.
Salmon farming, which began to develop on a massive scale in 1986 in Chile's 10th and 11th regions (around 600 and 1,000 km south of Santiago, respectively), is today the fourth leading export of Chile, which is the world's second salmon producer, after Norway.
In 2004, Chile's salmon exports generated 1.44 billion dollars, and in the first quarter of 2005 foreign sales reached 461 million dollars, according to SalmonChile, an organization of the sector's principal companies, both locally based and transnational.
Salmon farming in Chile involves 30,000 direct jobs and another 15,000 indirect, and SalmonChile says that by 2010 there will be another 16,000 jobs created in the country's 11th region alone, where 1.46 billion dollars in new investments are forecast to expand salmon culture in the seas of southern Patagonia.
The Barcelona-based NGO Veterinarians Without Borders said this month that the expansion of the salmon industry is in keeping with the predictions of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that by 2030 aquaculture would provide nearly all of the fish on the world's dinnertables.
According to the group, Chile's salmon industry is a typical case of monoculture that does not permit sustainable development and whose employment-generating capacity does not translate into better income rates in the 10th region, where two out of 10 people live in poverty.
Out of every 100 dollars of Chilean salmon exports, just 4.5 are for worker salaries, 42 go to the company, 27 to fish feeding costs, 12.5 to marketing costs, seven to other infrastructure expenses, and 3.5 dollars to repaying loans, said Veterinarians Without Borders.
Oceana maintains that the worst deeds of the industry affect the employees, and especially pregnant women. ''The workers are beaten, mistreated, degraded as humans so that they will work longer than the legal hours, and in inhospitable places,'' said Marcel Claude, the group's vice-president for South America.
The Chilean government's limited regulation of labor matters allows companies ''to ignore the workers' basic rights, such as having a safe workplace, adequate periods of rest and the freedom to associate and unionize,'' says the report.
Attorney León noted that the salmon industry in Chile has not adopted the concept of ''corporate social responsibility.''
Jaime Dinamarca, SOFOFA environmental issues manager, said Oceana's ''pseudo-study'' has ''no transcendence or relevance,'' and it is ''ungrateful, arbitrary and unjust'' to argue that wages in the salmon industry are low without first establishing valid bases of comparison.
This sector's wages are fair in a country with per capita income of 5,000 dollars a year, which cannot be compared, for example, to the 50,000 dollars per capita in Switzerland, Dinamarca said.
''One cannot sin out of ignorance, (and) many NGOs are paid by the competition of the national salmon industry,'' he added.
Rodrigo Infante, SalmonChile's general manager, maintains that the sector is noted for its ''regulation of salmon production with the aim of making practices sustainable, in harmony with the environment and socially responsible.''
Sources from the corporate association said in Tierramérica interviews that the Oceana report is undermined by a survey conducted in August 2004 by Los Lagos University in the 10th and 11th regions, in which 91 percent of respondents said salmon farming is the most important economic activity in their municipalities.
Among the most favorable effects attributed to the salmon industry, the first one cited was its capacity to provide jobs. The poll respondents also emphasized its contribution to local economic development, its active role in the community, good wages for workers, and concern for the environment.
* Gustavo González is an IPS correspondent.