Chilean Miners Rescue May Mark a Watershed in Workplace Safety

  • by Daniela Estrada (santiago)
  • Inter Press Service

But what changes? What lessons has the mining accident in the northern region of Atacama left Chile, the world's largest producer of copper?

In the media frenzy surrounding the rescue operation that started Tuesday night, no one has bothered to mention that there were more than 191,000 workplace accidents in this South American country of 17 million people in 2009, including 443 deaths, and 155 deaths in the first quarter of this year alone.

'The miners are not heroes,' as they have been called around the world for surviving underground for over two months; 'they are victims,' Néstor Jorquera, president of the CONFEMIN mining union, told IPS.

'After our compañeros are rescued, we're going to do everything we can to hold the people who were responsible for this accountable,' said the leader of CONFEMIN, which represents more than 18,000 miners who work at small, medium-size and large privately-owned mines -- including the 33 miners at the San Jose mine in Copiapó, Atacama.

In an unprecedented rescue operation that has thrilled television viewers around the world while it is broadcast live and covered by hundreds of Chilean and foreign journalists, the government of rightwing President Sebastián Piñera is bringing up the 32 Chileans and one Bolivian trapped in the mine since an Aug. 5 collapse.

The first miner, Florencio Ávalos, came up in the capsule named Phoenix after midnight and was welcomed by the rescuers and by Piñera and several cabinet ministers. By the time this article came out, 16 miners had been rescued, and the last miner may be brought up earlier than expected, by Wednesday night.

Critics say Camp Hope, where relatives of the miners have been staying near the mine, has turned into the set of a reality show where the private lives of the miners and their families and the details of the spectacular rescue have trumped concerns about the poor safety conditions that caused the accident.

Television programmes that plan to follow the rescued San Esteban mining company workers over the next few months have already been announced, as well as books and films about their ordeal.

There has also been criticism of the government for making political mileage out of the case, given Piñera's continuous presence at the mine and his frequent references to the strength of the miners in his speeches, as symbols 'of the Chilean spirit of struggle against adversity.'

In the eyes of the world, 'Chile has come off very well because of the rescue effort, and the responsibility assumed by the state,' Kirsten Sehnbruch, a professor at the University of Chile's Institute of Public Affairs, told IPS. But at the same time, the accident 'has caused tremendous damage to the country's image, because everyone is wondering why it happened.'

She said the accident was the result of negligence on the part of both the mining company and the government.

According to Sehnbruch, 'in any developed country, the owners of the mine would be in jail.'

The two Chileans who own the mine located in the desert 800 km north of the capital are facing criminal charges for serious bodily injury in connection with an earlier accident, in which a miner lost a leg. They are under court order not to leave the country.

'The joy over the near epic rescue that has been the result of the strength and wisdom of the miners of Atacama makes it necessary for us not to forget that situations like this one are absolutely avoidable,' María Ester Feres, director of the private Central University of Chile's centre on labour relations, research and advice, told IPS.

Feres pointed out that 'last year alone, according to partial figures (provided by companies affiliated with private insurance providers), more than 191,000 work-related accidents were counted' in this country.

In a speech after the first miner was rescued, Piñera said 'we are carrying out a complete review of safety standards,' not only in the mining industry but in other sectors as well.

A national policy needed

According to Feres, Chile does not have 'coherent, efficient public policies or a national structure in the area of work safety and health.'

'To judge by what is happening in agribusiness, salmon farming, the ports, construction and other industries, it is clear that decent work is not a strategic objective of this country's model for economic growth,' the expert said.

The problems include long workdays, insufficient breaks, low pay, high turnover, and high levels of informal employment, she said.

A commission set up in August by Piñera is drafting a report on workplace safety, to be delivered on Nov. 22.

The president also announced the creation of a mining superintendency to regulate and enforce safety standards, a restructuring of the National Geology and Mining Service, increased funds for inspections, and the establishment of another advisory committee, to review mining safety regulations.

CONFEMIN president Jorquera called for the ratification of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 176 on Safety and Health in Mines, which was adopted in 1995 and went into force in 1998. But he complained that 'the government isn't interested in this, because it believes it won't solve the problem.'

Feres said 'the government's actions are not pointing in the right direction,' because it set up 'a commission that is only focused on labour safety, without including an analysis of overall working conditions in its objectives.' Nor did it include labour unions and other key actors, she added.

She also criticised the business community's attempt to blame the problem 'only on small companies.'

Mining unions complain that the government has gone after the weakest link, closing down small, dangerous mines that operate on a semi-informal basis in Atacama, without offering any support to help them improve conditions.

Although CONFEMIN and the Central Workers Union (CUT) -- Chile's largest trade union -- will deliver a petition to the government, and other unions are organising as well, Jorquera is not optimistic with regard to the prospect of significant changes in working conditions, because of deeper underlying problems like outsourcing.

In addition, trends like outsourcing 'externalise labour costs and risks, and fragment and hinder the labour movement and the organised participation of workers in setting and overseeing working conditions,' said Feres.

'Tackling labour problems as a key dimension of economic and social development, and workplace safety and health as a state policy, with a national structure and an integral and participative focus is an urgent challenge, in order to make the leap to true social and economic development,' she added.

For his part, Jorquera said the 'business community's regrettable irresponsibility' has provided 'a great opportunity' for workers 'to protest and reveal everything that is hidden in this country,' now that the eyes of the world are on Chile.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service