SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Seventy-seven-year-old María Gonzalez is tired of waking up, Monday to Friday, to sell toilet paper in the Chilean capital. Her meager $146 monthly pension puts her below the poverty line, which in Chile is around $222 a month.
“I feel tired. Honestly, I’m exhausted. These last 15 days that I have been at home, I slept and ate,” Gonzalez told The Associated Press after protests shut down public transport and made it impossible for her to reach the city to sell.
What started on Oct. 18 as a student protest over a modest subway fare hike has ballooned into a massive, mostly peaceful social uprising that continues to consume Chile. Those early days were marked by attacks across Santiago’s subway that rendered public transit nonexistent. Looting of grocery stores and pharmacies also broke out. The chaos meant that thousands of people couldn’t get to work.
The protests include struggling retirees as well as others seeking better salaries, subsidized housing, a decrease in the cost of medicine and a new constitution. Many also want to overhaul a dictatorship-era private pension system that is widely criticized in a country with a rapidly aging population.
More than 1.2-million Chileans receive a pension that is less than $216 a month, well below the minimum salary of $400. Like Gonzalez, many retirees need to work in the informal sector to make ends meet.
She sells big toilet paper rolls for offices, and paper towels. “Sometimes I’m left with everything… but when I sell, I earn 5,000 to 6,000 pesos (the equivalent of $7 or $8),” she said.
“With that money, I can charge my phone, buy bread, buy some chicken.”
On an unusually good month, she can earn $160 this way, helping cover living expenses and her $133 rent in the impoverished settlement of Cerro Navia on the outskirts of Santiago.
She says without that extra income, she would be living off the cold bread, powdered milk and soup that the state’s health system provides for the elderly who live in poverty.
“I’m always eating beans, chickpeas,” she said. “For example, today I didn’t go to the grocery store and I’m living off my breakfast, which was milk, tea, and a pastry that cost 1,300 pesos ($1.70).”
The limitations of her life are visible in other ways.
“I don’t have a heater, I don’t have anything. … I’m sleeping on a cot someone gave me. I don’t have enough to buy a bed,” said Gonzalez, who lives alone. “One day I sat down and I figured out I spend more than 500,000 pesos ($660) a year just on transportation.”
It costs Gonzalez $42 a month to take public transportation twice a day. That’s 29% of the pension received by the poorest in society. And while a middle class household of two spends roughly $28 a month on electricity, $21 on water and $45 on gas, the cost of a basic basket of food costs, according to the government, about $58.
In 1981, during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Chile enacted a pension system that requires all workers to allocate 10% of their earnings to privately run pension fund administrators, known by their Spanish initials of AFP. Those who haven’t made contributions, or have very few, receive a basic pension from the state that amounts to $146 a month. That minimum wasn’t introduced until 2008 under the government of Michelle Bachelet, and later modified in response to public demands.
Some 500,000 elderly receive that basic pension.
Gonzalez calls the AFP system “terrible.” Women, who can retire at the age of 60 versus the age of 65 for men, typically have saved less. That is reflected in their pensions, which are smaller, although they live longer than men.
Prior to the protests, President Sebastián Piñera announced a pension reform proposal that would increase contributions from 10% to 14%, with employers responsible for covering the increase.
Segundo Vergara, 69, earns 400,000 pesos ($530) a month as a cleaner. If his wife wasn’t working, “we would be living off bread and water, eating rice and pasta every day,” he told the AP as he attended a demonstration in Santiago. Vergara said he is still working in hopes of taking advantage of a proposed law, not yet approved, that would reward those who retire later with an additional contribution from the state to their pension. At the moment, his pension would be about $260.
Margarita Álvarez, who works at a human rights organization and has a disability pension, said that the existing pension system needs to go “because in the end, the people who win are the ones who are managing the money.”
The six pension companies that manage Chileans’ savings recently announced that their earnings during the first nine months of the year had jumped 70.6%, thanks in part to better profitability, and more people contributing.
Álvarez, 64, lives with her husband, a daughter and grandchildren. She says they are able to eat beef twice a month. “The rest is vegetable soup. Luckily, artichokes are around, because they are cheaper, and eggs … which help a lot at home, especially when you have children. You have to feed them protein somehow.”
Fernando Larraín, director general of the pension administrators’ association, said that the issue Chile confronts is one of meager salaries, as well as the fact a large number of retirees worked during the 80s and 90s, when the salaries in the country were even lower. “In addition, today, we have around 30% of the population that isn’t contributing” to pensions on a regular basis, he said.
He also said that the 10% savings rate is “a lot lower than the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. We have retirement ages that have not adapted to the reality of the labor market … and a basic pension in which the state uses 0.8% of its gross domestic product, compared to 6%, on average, of OECD countries.”
Benjamín Saez, an economist at Fundacion Sol, an NGO that specializes in issues of inequality, said that people who made pension contributions over 30 years or more still receive just about $266.” He said that introduction of the minimum $146 pension has only served to “postpone the crisis” as it “is not enough to cover even 70% of the poverty line.”
Associated Press writer Marcos Sepúlveda contributed to this report.