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.