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Workers at Chile's ALMA Telescope Strike Over Working Conditions 274

Posted by timothy
from the but-stars-are-free dept.
An anonymous reader writes with this snippet from Deutsche Welle: "'Employees at the world's largest radio telescope have gone on strike after failing to reach agreement over pay and conditions. Workers say they are not sufficiently compensated for isolation and high altitude.' The strike started on Thursday, and the telescope is currently not operating. Although the project's budget is $1.1 billion, an ALMA technician earns less than $2,000 per month. How does this compare with people working at observatories in the U.S., Japan, or the European Union?"
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Workers at Chile's ALMA Telescope Strike Over Working Conditions

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  • Apples to Apples. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sjwt (161428) on Saturday August 24, 2013 @08:34AM (#44663105)

    These guys are earning $2,000 p/m more than ALMA workers who are working in US, Japan or the EU.

    Lets get a comparison of wages earned by locals doing similar skilled jobs.

  • by niftydude (1745144) on Saturday August 24, 2013 @08:45AM (#44663131)

    Although the project's budget is $1.1 billion, an ALMA technician earns less than $2.000 per month.

    1) Project budget is $1.1 billion. Sure, but over how many years? 1, 5, 10? Comparing a large number over many years to a monthly rate is disingenuous.

    2) $2.000. WTF? Only some few european countries still use "." as a thousands separator instead of ",". This is an english language website, use english locale settings because to everyone else, that reads as $2.00 a month, which obviously has to be wrong.

    3) Where does the $2000 a month figure come from anyway? It isn't in tfa. Citation needed.

    And yes, I'm grumpy, I'm working because I have a major deadline next week.

    • by xvan (2935999)
      From Mexico to Chhile/Argentina, you can find lots of countries with '.' as thousands separator. Last time I checked, we still aren't part of the EU, but I might be wrong...
      • But you do all speak European languages...
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          english is a european language.

          • English started as a European language. However they've bastardized it over there, while we Americans have preserved its integrity (not far from the truth - American English is closer to the common language of the Colonial Era than British English).

    • by SynFlood (8769) on Saturday August 24, 2013 @09:19AM (#44663283)

      First of all, I work for ALMA and I'm part of the workers union , but i'm speaking for myself.

      the budget is 1.5 billion already spent on the project , each antenna with all its equipment cost US$10 million, and there are 64 of them,and then you have to add all the building, devices, software licenses, computers, network equipment and other things that the project needs, so you can go easily to one billion only on that , which is already in place.

      about two, yes english site, agree use , instead of . for thousand separator ;)

      three, 2,000 USD is the average, some workers make less than 1,000 USD per month, working 12 hours a day on 8 days working, 6 days off shift, the average is 2,000 USD and top paid workers are getting nearly 6,000 USD per month.

      Another important point, we are on strike NOT for the money, we are on strike because the company that have our contracts is changing condition and removing some benefits , maybe U.S. laws permit that, but ALMA is located in Chile, and laws here are different, also ALMA is abusing of its special diplomatic condition to disallow inspection by the agency in charge of verify working conditions (Inspeccion del Trabajo de Chile).

      Also to clarify, most of the work is performed at 5,000msn (16,000 ft over sea level), with tempetures as low as -10 celcius (14 fahrenheit) with relative humidity of 5% and winds of 10 m/s (32feet/s).

      • Thank you for the information SynFlood. Mind if I ask a few questions?

        1. What type of jobs are these? Someone above mentioned "minimum wage technician job", but I don't think he knows what jobs are actually in dispute here. Are these advanced jobs maintaining the equipment, or manual labor wrench turning and meter reading jobs?

        2. What is the comparable pay scale of similar jobs in other areas in Chile? Obviously there needs to be a bonus for working up there, freezing you ass off, but we don't know what the

        • Obviously there needs to be a bonus for working up there, freezing you ass off

          There does? Last time I checked I didn't get a winter bonus up here in Canada where the temperatures hit -40C. -10C for a _high_ counts as heat wave in January. Even the schools will send the kids out for break times as long as the temperature is above -23C. Except for the altitude those conditions are mild compared to a typical Canadian winter and the Alberta minimum wage is only C$1,854/month with an undoubtedly higher cost of living.

          As you point out more details are needed to do a fair comparison but

          • Did you grow up there? Or did you move from someplace warmer? I grew up in Michigan where it snows half the year, but not quite as cold as Canada is. I moved to a warmer place a couple decades ago, and don't plan to ever move back. There would have to be a huge bonus for me to work in a cold area again.

            Most of the workers at ALMA probably didn't grow up in year round freezing conditions, and so don't want to work in freezing conditions for the same rate as they could get in warmer places. So, yes, there has

          • by dryeo (100693)

            Are you working outside (or exposed to outside temperatures)? My brother (a glacier) used to go to Prince George to work outside at minus 40 because of the bonuses. Perhaps bonuses for being exposed to temperatures that'll kill you in a short time have gone away to be replaced by bonuses for the executive who lowered wages.

        • by SynFlood (8769) on Saturday August 24, 2013 @11:45AM (#44664117)

          jobs are from mechanical workers, electric engineers, antenna operator, array operators, warehouse operators , software programmers, system administrator, dba, network eng.

          about base salary, we are around 10% or 20% better paid than the same job at a santiago , for example

          I'm a Chilean citizen, 80% of the workers are Chilean citizen and the rest are from US, Europe or Asia (Japan mainly)

          but i would like to say that the strike is not mainly for the salary, also for the working conditions.

      • Thanks SynFlood - your post is more informative than the entire article that was linked!

        Disallowing the inspection of working conditions seems like pretty bad practice. Has ALMA given a reason for why they are doing that?
        • by galoise (977950)
          They don't have to give a reason in as much as they are not "preventing" it actively, they are just using some of the operational benefits that they enjoy under their status as an international organization with diplomatic immunity in Chile. The UN does the same thing, there are a number of UN organizations with seats in Chile (Big regional hubs for the ECLAC, UNDP, FAO, etc), and they are exempt from a number of local regulations in Chile, including General Labour Direction oversight. Self-regulation of i
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Odd. Either my spanish is far worse than I think, or your webpage says that it is about the money. [sindicatoalma.cl] Of course, your page also says it has been a year since the inauguration of the telescope when it clearly has not.

        Without really understanding all the details I have no idea if the union is making reasonable or unreasonable demands. However, you really should try to communicate a clear, consistent, and factually correct message. Making small errors like getting the 1 year wrong makes everyone wonder about all

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by SynFlood (8769)

          at the beggining, of the negotiation, the money part was the one that get more publicity by the media, but there was a lot of other points, personally i'm not on strike for the salary, but for the condition , of course i will not reject if my salary is increased ;) , but the central point IMHO is the condition of work and how our employee interact with us

            (i'm not part of the union directive, jus a union member, speaking for myself!)

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        Another important point, we are on strike NOT for the money, we are on strike because the company that have our contracts is changing condition and removing some benefits , maybe U.S. laws permit that, but ALMA is located in Chile, and laws here are different

        My U.S. employer tried the same thing, my union sued the company for breach of contract (and won).

      • Thank you for the added information. The article was disengenuous if they quoted the construction budget; the operations budget is an entirely different allocation.

        In the U.S. there are some protections at the Federal level (base minimum wage, worker safety, anti-discrimination); but, most of the employment laws are set at the state level. Employment regulations in California are very different from, say, Alabama, or Illinois, or compared to Virginia (where I am).

        Removing benefits is not a way to kee

      • by wwphx (225607)
        Good luck, SynFlood, to you and your co-workers. My wife is in charge of a 3.5 meter optical telescope, and the hours are brutal in the winter but much nicer in the summer: a typical shift is an hour or so before sundown to an hour or so after sunrise. Employees are expected to have side-projects (maintaining wikis, writing training materials, etc) to fill out a 40 hr week because no one works exactly 40 hours a week. People work blocks of time: three days on, ten days off (very roughly) because in the w
      • by Type44Q (1233630)

        Also to clarify, most of the work is performed at 5,000msn (16,000 ft over sea level)

        It should also be pointed out that the threshold for long-term sustainable habitation (where your body doesn't begin to slowly waste away from oxygen-deprivation, resulting in eventual fucking death) is around 15,000' above sea level.

    • by etash (1907284)
      , as a thousand separator? WTF, not everybody is english or american, the world does not revolve around you.
      • , as a thousand separator? WTF, not everybody is english or american, the world does not revolve around you.

        It's common courtesy. When in Rome, etc. If I post to a non-english website, I do my best to get my language, currency and date formats correct, and I expect the same when others come here. And at any rate, correcting this sort of thing in the summary is what the editors are for.

        For the record, I'm neither english nor american and I don't live in either of those countries, so no, I don't think the world revolves around me.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        , as a thousand separator? WTF, not everybody is english or american

        What English speaking countries use "." as a thousands separator? You're writing in English. When you're in Mexico do you say "Este cervesa es two fifty" or "Este cervesa es dos y cincuenta"? (my Spanish is rusty, I hope I got that right)

  • by hoboroadie (1726896) on Saturday August 24, 2013 @08:58AM (#44663179)

    If you were exposed in the Atacama, you would most likely be dead in less than 48 hours. TFA touches on this, but it is emphatically not a nice place to hang out.
    Sometimes I, too, chafe under the terms of my peonage.

    • You should try an Alberta winter sometime. It can get down to -40C and I've seen -53C with windchill. They often put out warnings about frostbite warnings that exposed skin will freeze in seconds. In january we are lucky if we hit -10C for a _high_. Without the proper attire and equipment you would not survive 48 minutes let alone hours.
    • If you were exposed in the Atacama, you would most likely be dead in less than 48 hours.

      I live in a major US city where the same is true for a few months out of the year. Yawn.

  • by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Saturday August 24, 2013 @09:14AM (#44663259)

    The cost of living in Chile for american expats is under $1000 a month.

    The average annual income is $11,039.

    If the observatory workers are making $2000 a month, then they seem to be making the equivalent of about $90,000 in the U.S. for local goods and services- tho very little in terms of world products (like imported automobiles and air conditioners).

    • by SynFlood (8769)

      just to make you guys an idea of living costs in chile

      http://www.contactchile.cl/en/chile-information.php

      if you look at standard budget, this is for a single person and is around US$ 1000, and most of the ALMA workers have family.

  • by dataspel (2436808) on Saturday August 24, 2013 @10:31AM (#44663639)
    McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, Texas. Comparable isolation, but only about 7000 ft altitude.
    Techician jobs range from about $20,000 to $35,000

    For example:
    https://utdirect.utexas.edu/apps/hr/jobs/nlogon/120716015331 [utexas.edu]

    • by SynFlood (8769) on Saturday August 24, 2013 @11:55AM (#44664191)

      If you see the add, they work form 8 to 5 MonFri, we work Mon to Mon 12hours a day, except first day wich is from 11 to 8 and last day wich is 8 to 3, wich is 88 hours in a week, then 6 das off, so is 44 hours a week in average? and we can't go back to our houses every night while working, because we are 1200km away from home, some even more, is a 2 hour bus trip to the nearest airport, and then 2 hous of fligh, or 24 hours in bus. so is not comparable with McDoald Observatory!
      Also elevation , accoring to thir page is only 2000mts, our residence is a 2960 and the work area at 5000mts.

  • $2000 a month is about what the average non-PhD technician/junior scientist on a government funded basic research project makes in the United States. A junior PhD will make about twice that. Astronomy is not a particularly well funded branch of science (compared to molecular biology or nanotechnology, for example), I would expect their technicians to generally make less than average.

    If you want to work in basic research (in any capacity other than PI), be prepared to live very frugally.

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