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President Bachelet signs the labor reform bill that strengthens collective bargaining on December 29, 2014. (Photo: Ministerio de Agricultura Chile/flickr/cc)

Proposed Labor Laws in Chile Lauded as 'Enormous Step Toward Social Equality'

'Today we are marking a new milestone—we are clearing a debt that we have hold toward the workers of Chile,' says president Michelle Bachelet

Deirdre Fulton

Chile’s center-left president Michelle Bachelet, who took office in March promising to push a progressive platform, introduced new legislation Monday seeking to reform the labor code, boost union power, and reduce the gap between the rich and poor in a nation beset by severe income inequality.

"Today we are marking a new milestone, building the country that we wish—we are clearing a debt that we have...toward the workers of Chile," the president said in a speech at the presidential palace in Santiago. "In a democratic society, [economic] growth and equity need to go hand in hand in order to ensure a future of prosperity, but also of legitimacy and social cohesion."

According to TeleSur:

The legislation includes various measures empowering workers such as strengthening unions, increasing collective negotiations, and ending the practice of replacing workers on strikes (referred to as scabs).

Bachelet also mentioned fair remuneration, work security, training, protection in case of unemployment, fairer work relations with employers and simplification of collective negotiation.

If passed, Bachelet's proposal will be the first major change to labor laws since the military regime of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled the country between 1973 and 1990, Barbara Figueroa, head of the Central Workers Union, told Radio Cooperativa on Monday. Figueroa called the proposed changes "an enormous step toward social equality."

"We’ve waited more than 20 years for this small step," she said. "We have started to dismantle the labor plan of the military regime."

The Wall Street Journal reported that "Bachelet’s backers have a majority in Congress, where the labor law changes must be passed, but conservative legislators could force the administration to water down the proposal," which will be debated in 2015. Business leaders also oppose Bachelet's plan. 

But the reforms could serve as a model for other Latin American countries—such as Peru, where for the past week, youth, students, and labor activists have been protesting recently passed legislation they say discriminates against all those under the age of 25 by taking away a number of rights at work such as vacation time and reducing minimum wage salaries.

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