Chile: Less media hype, more miners’ rights

November 27, 2010
Miner rescued from the San Jose mine. Chile, October.

Media fanfare has subsided around the October rescue of 33 miners from the San Jose mine in Chile — an event watched by an estimated 1 billion people across the globe.

But could this event at least help bring about change for miners’ rights and conditions?

Unfortunately, if we look behind all the commotion and government rhetoric about making big changes for the lives of miners in Chile, the answer seems to be no.

On November 7, two miners were killed in an accident in the Los Reyes mine near Copiapo, close to where the San Jose mine accident took place.

Meanwhile, more than 1500 Chilean workers at the world’s third-largest copper mine, Collahuasi, are now into the third week of a strike. The mine’s majority owners are Xstrata and AngloAmerican.

The miners’ union is not only demanding a wage increase, but also better mine security. It argues the owners could afford to do better by their workers, given the mine’s profits rose 36% last year to US$1.56 billion.

Collahuasi is located in the Atacama desert, at a height of 4000 metres, where oxygen levels are low and stress levels are high.

Nor has life become better for the rescued San Jose miners and their fellow workers.

Some of them protested on October 18 at a religious ceremony organised to recall the 70 days that the miners were trapped 700 metres underground.

Chanting “we are not 33, we are 300” and “70 days without pay and work. Settlement now! Don’t rob us”, 13 of the 33 miners, together with several of their workmates, highlighted the fact that the rest of the San Jose miners have been left without jobs and are owed months of wages following the company’s announcement of bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, Carlos Vilches, a parliamentarian who is part of the commission investigating the accident, has revealed that several San Jose miners have confirmed that just hours before the accident, workers had warned management the mine was about to collapse.

But the operations manager denied the miners’ requests to return to the surface.

Jorge Gonzalez, president of the Chilean Forestry Workers union, told Green Left Weekly that in the days leading up to the disaster, “the local union had said its members would not enter because their lives were in danger.

“So the company got those 33 miners, among others that were there on the day, and told them to go to work.

“This [should not] happen either in the mines or in any other dangerous industry.”

Gonzalez added: “As long as the interests of the companies to make profit override the health and safety of workers, these situations will continue.”

Eduardo Rocco, vice president of the Chilean Miners Federation told Rebelion on November 6 that 18 miners have died in Chilean mines this year. (This was before the two recent fatalities, which takes the toll to 20).

Chilean unions are continuing to campaign to demand that the government abide by International Labour Organisation standards regarding mine safety and conditions.

Chile’s billionaire president and former ally of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship, Sebastian Pinera, has refused to act.

"They create spaces for the company owners who are the minority, and don't open spaces for the participation of workers who are the majority", Rocco said

He noted: “One of the factors that has led to an increase in accidents is intimately related to the spike in the price of copper, where the industry in general has increased its production to get a better deal, which directly affects our security.

"In large parts of the mining industry, 12 hour working days have been authorised, which has impacted with a 50% overload of work and 50% more possibility of work accidents."

As long as those in government continue to put profits first, these “accidents” will continue to take place.

Real lasting change will require fighting for a government that puts people and the environment above corporate interests.

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