May 1: Chilean Labor Day

May 1 is a holiday in Chile, and since it falls on a Friday this year, for many Chileans, it signals a 3-day exodus from smoggy Santiago. For many others, it will be a day of reflection, marches, and protest.

I always associated May 1—May Day—with a maypole and the jangling bells and clacking sticks of Morris dancers at dawn on the city’s highest hilltop. Dressed in white and dripping with brightly colored ribbons and bells, the dancers jumped and stomped and twirled and swirled their way through the steps passed down for centuries and distributed sweet cakes and sprigs of the first spring flowers to ensure the region’s fertility—a spectacle that made for a pretty darned good reason to get up early on a frosty morning in May (yes, it’s still frosty at 6am in Upstate NY).

It wasn’t until graduate school that I learned that a good part of the rest of the world called it Labor Day. An Indian classmate and I stared at each other in mutual disbelief. I had no idea, and she couldn’t believe it. “But it started in the US!” she insisted. “But Labor Day is in September!” Slowly it started to make sense.

Briefly, a workers’ strike gone very wrong in Chicago ended in what is now known as the Haymarket Massacre of 1886. Someone threw a bomb, and the police fired onto the crowd, killing a dozen people and inciting horrified protest around the world. The anniversary was commemorated and eventually became an official holiday in many countries around the world. The US, with its fear of communism, socialism, and anarchism, and other movements associated with breaking the status quo, chose to divert attention from the fateful event and declared its decidedly non-political Labor Day to be the first Monday in September. For greater details, see: International Workers Day.

Chile is among the countries that marks May 1 as Labor Day since 1931. For some it’s a day of rest, for others, particularly supporters of the CUT (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores) it is a day of protest, demonstration, and marches in favor of workers’ rights.

Given the current global economic crisis, the CUT expects a record crowd this year for an authorized march in downtown Santiago that will begin at 10:00 AM in Estación Central (in front of USACH, the Universidad de Santiago de Chile) and move down Alameda to Avenida Brasil, where a stage will be set up for the event at 11:00. The primary goal of this year’s event is to initiate a petition with a goal of a million signatures, “Para que la crisis no la paguen los trabajadores” (Literally: So that the workers don’t pay for the crisis), that calls for major improvements in working conditions, such as putting an end to out-sourcing, temporary employment, and fixed-length contracts.

Some aspects of Chilean Labor Laws:

Ironically, the Haymarket Riots began as a result of workers striking for an 8-hour work week back in 1886, something that Chilean workers still have not accomplished. The standard work week in Chile is 45 hours (down from 48 just a few years ago). By the way, restaurant and hotel workers do 60 hours, often with grueling split shifts.

Chilean workers do, however, have a number of rights that workers in the US don’t even dare to dream of, such as a mandatory 3 weeks vacation after 1 year of service, up to 18 legal holidays, and maternity benefits do die for: 6 weeks prenatal and 3 months post-natal leave (dad’s get 5 days), with a special clause that stipulates that a woman cannot be fired or laid off from the moment her pregnancy begins until 1 year after her post-natal leave terminates (when the child is 1 year, 84 days old).

Workers who are laid off are entitled to a pretty attractive severance package that includes 1 month’s pay for every year of service and unemployment for up to 5 months.

See more at DT, the Dirección de Trabajo.


2 responses to “May 1: Chilean Labor Day

  1. 3 weeks vacation means nothing for someone who works 60-70 hours a week without overtime pay (my husband, constructor civil). I think he would kill for a U.S. schedule!

  2. True, we could ALL use at least 3 weeks a year! Although young professionals in the States pay their dues too, with long hours and no overtime (been there!)…

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