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In Latin America, The Quiet Rise Of The High-Skilled Immigrant

Statue of a worker in the mining town of Calama, Northern Chile
Statue of a worker in the mining town of Calama, Northern Chile
Ximena Bravo Pou

SANTIAGO - José came to Santiago, from Cali, Colombia five months ago. Some acquaintances in his hometown had put him in contact with Carlos, another Colombian who has been working in a cell phone store in the Chilean capital for the past year.

Now José has joined Carlos as a salesperson in the store, where he uses the technical skills he learned at home. And he also earns more money in Chile than he would in Colombia – that’s why he is there.

José’s story is increasingly common among Latin Americans and other foreigners who come to Chile to work. They are much more educated and less poor than a couple of years ago. Various recent studies have disproved the myth that workers who come to Chile are poorly qualified and abused in the work force.

“These are people with a level of education that is slightly higher than the average for local workers, and that makes it easy for them to enter our workforce,” said Jaime Ruiz-Tagle, an economics researcher at the University of Chile.

According to a recent study on migration and the labor market in Chile, the average immigrant worker in Chile has 12.6 years of education while the average Chilean has 10.4 years of education. In addition, 11% of the immigrant workers qualify as poor, while 15% of the Chilean workforce does.

Foreigners in Chile also participate in the workforce in higher numbers: 68% of non-Chileans over 15 work, while only 57% of Chileans over 15 do so. Non-Chileans were slightly less likely to have a contract, but experts say that a labor contract often does not guarantee better working conditions.

In surveys, immigrant workers in Chile express a positive opinion of the Chilean workforce. 60% say they do not feel discriminated against, 76% say they are paid the same as Chileans and 80% feel they have the same opportunities for advancement. Actually, in some sectors immigrants earn more than their Chilean counterparts. Possibly because they work more hours on average: Foreigners work on average 44.7 hours per week, while Chileans work 43.3 hours per week.

This shift is a reflection of the fact that Latin America is starting to reap the benefits of education. Unlike the United States and Europe, educational attainment in Latin America has been increasing. That opens opportunities for Latin American workers throughout the region. All those workers have to do is set out with a strong resume under their arm.

No immigrant wave

Another myth about immigrant workers is that there has been a huge influx of foreigners into Chile and they are putting downward pressure on salaries. Not true, say experts. The supposed flood of foreigners doesn’t exist, and the numbers of foreign workers are not anywhere near enough to influence salaries.

The number of foreigners in Chile has been rising steadily, but it is still less than 2% of the population. “Immigrants have to represent at least 10% of the workforce to produce an effect on salaries,” explained Ruiz-Tagle.

Experts also explained that while the number of foreign workers has increased, many of them are professionals, especially in mining, agriculture and technology who are recruited to come to Chile because there are not enough Chilean experts in those fields.

Between 2006 and 2009 the percentage of domestic workers who were foreigners fell from 16% to 12%, while the percentage of bosses or employers who were foreigners rose from 5% to 8%. There was a similar rise in the number of scientists and intellectuals who were foreign-born, and a similar decline in all low-skilled jobs.

The largest number of immigrants in Chile come from Colombia, where high unemployment rates have led many educated professionals to look for opportunities elsewhere.

In response to these trends, the Chilean government announced in November that it would make changes to the laws regarding immigration, including increasing the number of visas and residence permits available to foreign workers, especially those with specialized skills.

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Migrant Lives

They Migrated From Chiapas When Opportunities Dried Up, Orchids Brought Them Home

An orchid rehabilitation project is turning a small Mexican community into a tourist magnet — and attracting far-flung locals back to their hometown.

They Migrated From Chiapas When Opportunities Dried Up, Orchids Brought Them Home

Marcos Aguilar Pérez takes care of orchids rescued from the rainforest in his backyard in Santa Rita Las Flores, Mapastepec, Chiapas, Mexico.

Adriana Alcázar González/GPJ Mexico
Adriana Alcázar González

MAPASTEPEC — Sweat cascades down Candelaria Salas Gómez’s forehead as she separates the bulbs of one of the orchids she and the other members of the Santa Rita Las Flores Community Ecotourism group have rescued from the rainforest. The group houses and protects over 1,000 orchids recovered from El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, after powerful storms.

“When the storms and heavy rains end, we climb to the vicinity of the mountains and collect the orchids that have fallen from the trees. We bring them to Santa Rita, care for them, and build their strength to reintegrate them into the reserve later,” says Salas Gómez, 32, as she attaches an orchid to a clay base to help it recover.

Like magnets, the orchids of Santa Rita have exerted a pull on those who have migrated from the area due to lack of opportunity. After years away from home, Salas Gómez was one of those who returned, attracted by the community venture to rescue these flowers and exhibit them as a tourist attraction, which provides residents with an adequate income.

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