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A legal dispute over salaries and bonuses at the world's largest observatory, located in northern Chile, is raising questions about the economic and working conditions of employees in an inhospitable environment.
Nearly 80 per cent of the 270 employees at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have been on strike since 22 August, after failing to reach an agreement on a new collective labour contract proposed by the union to their employers, the Associated Universities Inc. (AUI).
The workers are demanding a salary increase of 15 per cent plus inflation, as well as higher education and "special bonuses".
The justification for the bonuses, according to the workers, is that they work at 5,000 metres above sea level in the midst of the Atacama Desert, the driest desert on earth.
The workers are also complaining about inadequate catering and sanitary facilities.
“The workers endure very difficult conditions, labouring at an altitude of over 5,000 metres, where oxygen is sparse, temperatures are extremely low and the wind is fierce, and they have long shifts.”
University of Concepción, Chile
"The stance of the company has not changed since negotiations started," said Victor Gonzalez, president of ALMA's union, in a Chilean daily newspaper La Tercera (22 August). "They have been intransigent, for example, regarding salaries."
Gonzalez said the strikers — who include engineers, data managers and administrative staff but not scientists — are demanding similar conditions to those offered by other international observatories in Chile.
AUI has replied that salaries at ALMA are in the range of salaries in Chile for similar work.
After negotiations broke down last week, the workers suspended the operations of the radio-telescope, a base camp and offices in Santiago.
In retaliation, AUI has suspended the contracts of striking workers.
It says the "illegal operation" has "threatened security" at the observatory, jeopardised access to electricity, water and other services, and "put the scientific patrimony … at risk".
For its part, the union says AUI " has deliberately violated [security] by continuing to fuel the gas turbine that feeds the observatory during the night".
On 26 August AUI called upon strikers to "restart talks", with the workers responding that the company should "express their willingness to negotiate respectfully and via a concrete proposal".
Two Chilean astronomers interviewed by SciDev.Net agree with the workers' demands.
"The workers endure very difficult conditions, labouring at an altitude of over 5,000 metres, where oxygen is sparse, temperatures are extremely low and the wind is fierce, and they have long shifts," says Ezequiel Triester, associate professor of astronomy at the University of Concepción, Chile.
Felipe Barrientos, associate professor of astronomy at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and president of the country's Astronomical Society, adds: "Their demands to improve their working conditions are very reasonable".
Both astronomers worry about the damage to astronomy that a long strike might cause.
Triester says: "Days without carrying out scientific observations at ALMA will delay ALMA's scheduled first stage of observations, which began in January, using about half of the array's planned 66 telescope dishes.
"This could interfere with the call for tenders for stage 2, due to begin June 2014, and delay the start of routine operations at the observatory," he adds.
For Barrientos, ALMA is posed to make great discoveries "and the sooner it starts operating, the better".
"Some observations critically depend on when they are carried out. These will suffer greatly if the strike continues. Furthermore, there are students and researchers waiting for the data collected at ALMA to do the work they are committed to do," he says.