In a move that shows how little has changed since Ernesto “Che” Guevara famously observed the maltreatment of Chile’s copper miners by foreign capitalists in The Motorcycle Diaries, more than 500 mineworkers have been summarily sacked by the Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton.
Their offence was to participate in strike action for improved pay and conditions at Escondida, an open-cut mine located in the arid Antofagasta region of northern Chile.
Between February 28 and March 3, about 2000 building workers employed by the consortium BSK (which supplies contract labour to Escondida), mounted road blocks and prevented access to the main pit.
In defence of these measures, the BSK workers cited the intransigent attitude of BHP management, which refused to enter into meaningful negotiations.
With an annual production of more than 1 billion tonnes of copper annually, Escondida is a highly prized asset for majority owner BHP Billiton. Rio Tinto also has a 30% stake.
The multi-billion-dollar profits generated by Escondida, which recently overtook the nearby Chuquicamata mine as the world’s single-largest source of copper, contrast markedly with the relatively meagre salaries paid to the workers who labour for the “Big Australian” in difficult and dangerous conditions.
In recent years, this discrepancy has led to a series of industrial conflicts, including a two-week stoppage in 2011 that dramatically reduced the mine’s output and sent shock waves through the global copper market.
Although BHP has offered some concessions to Escondida’s permanent workforce, the union (Sindicato Escondida) said they do not adequately address the imbalance between corporate revenue and workers’ take-home pay.
Treated with even less respect are the temporary workers that make up about two-thirds of the mining workforce in Chile. Escondida’s management relies heavily on these sub-contracted labourers, who are paid dismally and denied many basic industrial rights.
BHP plans to use this expendable workforce to carry out an expansion of the mine’s operations. This will allow BHP to extract up to 1.3 million more tonnes of copper by 2015.
The union representing these workers (SINAMI) initiated unsuccessful negotiations with BHP in September last year,. SINAMI said its members were entitled to rates of pay in line with industry averages and compensation for transport costs.
Management refused to listen.
The travel issue is an important one, because much of BSK’s sub-contracted workforce comes from southern Chile. Working at Escondida means they are separated from their families in this isolated desert region (the driest in the world) for weeks or months on end.
So-called “fly-in, fly-out” mine workers stationed in remote regions of Australia consider travel assistance a fundamental right, yet BHP is unwilling to accord the same rights to workers in Chile.
In response to the strike, BHP announced a temporary suspension of its expansion. SINAMI responded: “We have always sought dialogue, but in the absence of any answer from the company, we fear that this strike may become more radicalised.
“The company is constantly threatening workers, but in the face of this situation we stay firm and we will continue the struggle to improve conditions for our workers.”
On March 15, more than 500 of the BSK workers were informed by mail that their positions had been terminated. BHP accused the strikers of “vandalism” and “work site abandonment”, using the Chilean labour code to justify the mass sacking.
This means, as well as losing their jobs, the workers cannot seek compensation and will find it hard to obtain employment elsewhere.
Management’s vindictive response to these workers’ demands stems from ideological as well as economic reasons. Taking advantage of lower labour (and environmental) standards in foreign jurisdictions is a long-established feature of BHP Billiton’s profit-driven, race-to-the-bottom business model.
In this model, foreign workers must be “kept in line”, and treated harshly if they dare agitate.
As one of the copper workers who talked to Che said: “Stupid gringos, they would prefer to lose thousands of pesos a day in a strike, just to deny paying a few cents more to a poor worker.”
What was true back in the early 1950s remains true today. Although the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende carried out major reforms of the natural resources sector in the earl '70s, this was reversed when a US-backed military junta seized power in 1973.
Although the contemporary Chilean state portrays itself as a “rule-of-law” society in Latin America, the industrial relations culture is still so heavily weighted in favour of employer groups that Chile’s new “democracy” is little more than a myth.
The military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet is history, but the dictatorship of capital remains very much in force. BHP Billiton is one of the key beneficiaries of this structural injustice.
After sending out a message of intimidation to its workforce, BHP has resumed expansion operations at Escondida.
This Australian-based mega-corporation’s record in Latin America (where it has an extensive network of investments) is littered with similar examples of exploitative practices.
In the Chilean government, BHP has found a willing partner in exploitation.
In response to BHP’s victory at Escondida, however, there have been calls from the Chilean labour movement and the left for a reinvigorated debate about the nationalisation of Chilean natural resource.