MAC: Mines and Communities

Chile post the "miracle": sordid allegations emerge

Published by MAC on 2010-10-25
Source: BBC, Portside (2010-10-20)

Within a fortnight of the dramatic rescue of 33 trapped Chilean miners, the reality behind this much-heralded event is being stripped from the official hyperbole. See: Chile's mendacious "miracle"

Last week, one Chilean politician claimed that the workers had been refused permission to quit their precarious shaft, even though they feared disaster was at hand.

Dan Morgan, reporting from Chile for the leftwing website, Portside, on 18 October painted a truly disturbing picture of the degree to which workers have been sacrificed to the interests of mining companies in recent years.

And not only at the benighted San Jose mine.

Chilean politician alleges miners' warnings 'ignored'

BBC News

20 October 2010

A Chilean politician has alleged that on the day the San Jose mine collapsed trapping 33 men, workers voiced safety fears but were told to stay on shift.

Deputy Carlos Vilches said one of the miners had told him that managers refused their request to surface some three hours before the disaster.

Mr Vilches said miner Juan Illanes had heard unusual noises in the mine.

A lawyer acting for the mining company, Hernan Tuane, told the BBC that the accusations were completely false.

Mr Vilches, who is on the commission investigating the 5 August collapse, said he had spoken to several of the miners as they were being treated in hospital following their rescue last week.

"One of them, without being prompted, said: 'Don Carlos, I want you to know that three hours before the accident, at 11 in the morning, we heard loud and unusual noises inside the mine," Mr Vilches said.

Mr Vilches said the miner, Juan Illanes, had told him they asked to be allowed to leave but their request was denied.

Mr Illanes has not spoken directly to the media.

Mr Vilches, who is a deputy from the region where the mine is located, said he did not know who the miners had warned about the noises but said he would be calling Mr Illanes and other miners to testify to the commission.

This version of events was contradicted by lawyer Hector Tuane, who is acting for the San Esteban mining company. He said he had spoken to the operations chief at the mine, Carlos Pinilla.

"He told me first hand that the accusation is completely false. He said at no point did the mine show any abnormal or defective characteristics that would have made it necessary for the miners to be pulled out of the mine at the time they were said to have made the request," Mr Tuane said in a BBC interview.

Capsule on display

Chilean media also carried a public denial by Mr Pinilla and the mine's general manager, Pedro Simunovic.

"No worker or shift leader communicated to us, who were responsible for mine operations at the time, any concerns about unusual noises or explosions, and there was no request to abandon the mine on account of some presumed risk," they said.

"We must once again insist that never did any of us have the slightest indication that such a catastrophe as the one on 5 August could happen."

Compensation claims have been filed and more lawsuits are expected in the wake of the 5 August collapse.

On Tuesday, the Phoenix 2 capsule used to bring the miners to the surface went on display outside the presidential palace in Santiago.

The Chilean Navy has announced that it has patented the capsule's name and design.

The aim, according to Admiral Edmundo Gonzalez, was "so that the Navy can not only sell this capsule in cases where a similar kind of rescue is needed but also to control to some degree the proliferation of copies".

And nearly a week after he was rescued, miner Richard Villarroel on Tuesday became a father with the birth of his son, Richard Fernando, Chilean website La Tercera reported.


The Miners' Rescue: A View from Chile

By Dan Morgan

Posted on Portside

18 October 2010

After the 5th of August, for 17 days the whole country held its breath, hoping that 33 miners trapped in the San José mine would be found, and found alive. Nothing was certain. As the test boreholes advanced, so did the horror at the scandalous news that emerged, day by day, of the criminal negligence that led to the disaster. For this was no accident, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

Now they have all been rescued, in good condition, and the news coverage was of the most trivial kind. President Sebastián Piñera has had a field day, luckily he was there to greet the men before he left on a European tour, and his government has avoided any blame for the scandalous, probably corrupt, lack of regulation of this dangerous mine.

The relief when the men were found alive was wonderful. Quickly, resources were mobilised to establish communication, and good supplies of food, clean water and advice, through the 15cm. diameter borehole. TV commentators, and the nation's president, made belittling, condescending remarks about the shift of 33 men in the San José mine. Worries that they might have lapsed into depressed apathy, or become 'dispersed', revealed a complete lack of knowledge of the working class (and especially of underground miners, who depend on each other daily for survival).

Even though this obviously dangerous mine had a high turnover of workers, they of course organised themselves, eating a tiny ration of food every 48 hours, so that it lasted 12 days, in humid, hot conditions.

On contact, their first question was about one of the collective who had left with a truck-load of mineral just before the roof-fall. He got out in time, and the trapped men gave a great cheer when they heard this.

The list of scandals is too long to give completely, but the main ones are:

The political dividends of the rescue process have been great for the government; Piñera has visited several times, and the Ministers for Mining Lawrence Golborne (previously a supermarket chain manager) and Health, Mañalich have been frequent visitors.

News of the first contact was delayed until Piñera could arrive to give it, turning it into a media show. He has promised to punish any guilty parties, and has sacked three officials of SERNAGEOMIN, including its director. He also named a commission to propose improvements in labour safety, but with no trade union members of course. Composed of 'experts', many with strong links to employers' organisations, we will not expect any controls that will interfere 'too much' with the great profit motive.

The Interior Minister has now said that there will be no more accidents due to safety norms being ignored! We can only hope that this will be the case.

The Owners

The mine was owned by a Hungarian émigré for many years, and his son now owns it jointly with the General Manager. They both live in Santiago, 550 miles away but the 'Manager' deigns to visit once a week, usually. He is a former Unilever manager (obviously what is known in Britain as a 'Unilever bastard') noted for his arrogance, and ignorance of mining or safety standards.

He has never spoken to the trade union president, or any of the workers. The other owner is seen maybe once every two weeks; he had taken a back seat since the manager was appointed a few years ago. They deny any wrong-doing, of any kind, and there is evidence that they are trying to move money out of the country, or to other people, to avoid paying compensation.

They had not made pension or health insurance payments for the workers for several months before the disaster, but Alejandro Bohn, the 'Manager' increased the capital in his personal investment company by over 500,000 pounds in January this year.

Meanwhile, to attract workers to this dangerous mine, they were paid less than 600 pounds a month on average. The cost of living is perhaps half what it is in Britain but this is still a pittance for dusty, dangerous work. Many workers, though, are paid 130 pounds a month, the minimum wage, and even skilled workers often make only 3 or 4 hundred. This shows the class huge differences in Chile.

Mining

Mining, almost all copper mining, accounts for only 11% of GDP but 49% of exports. Chile produces 35% of total world production of copper.

Of a population of 16 million, and a total workforce of 7.5 million, only 200,000 work in mining, most of them in big open-cast mines. Of the 4 big mines forming the state copper company, CODELCO, only one is underground.

As most new big copper deposits have been given away to foreign transnationals, CODELCO now only produces about 30% of the copper, and with recent high prices, BHP Billiton, Anglo-American, Xstrata and Rio Tinto made more profits both in 2007 and in 2008 than their total investment. Safety standards should be better in the big mines but a report of 27th August puts some doubt on this.

The highly controversial Pascua Lama gold mine recently started high in the Andes, owned by the Canadian transnational Barrick, had no refuge in its first tunnel, only day-time health cover, etc., etc. and a bulldozer recently turned over.

Trade Unions

Trade Unions in Chile have to be based on a company, so are usually small. Regional and national organisation has to be by way of federations. The small union of this company started action about safety back in 2004, presenting a 'legal protection' suit in the local courts, demanding both mines be closed permanently. No result. Six letters were sent to various authorities. No Action.

Traditionally, copper miners were the 'labour aristocracy' of Chile, relatively well-paid and with social benefits. In CODELCO paternalism partly persists but the new 'managerial' government has appointed a manager from BHP Billiton, the biggest mining company in the world, to shake it up and reduce costs. Worries are that he will prepare it for possible privatisation in whole or part. Workers' benefits are of course a prime target.

All the big mining companies, including CODELCO, have employed a 'divide and rule' strategy for the workforce, with a core of workers directly employed and with permanent contracts, and a large number of sub- contracted workers, at much lower wages.

So there are two main trade union organisations; one for the 'core' workers in CODELCO, now faced with battles to maintain their salaries and conditions, and a recently formed confederation of sub-contracted workers.

This with leadership by the communist Cristian Cuevas, waged tough campaigns in the last three years to increase wages and try to force the companies like CODELCO, BHP, Anglo-American, Rio Tinto etc. to take responsibility for the sub-contractors' workers and ensure they are employed on the same conditions.

The last government and parliament eventually passed a law which should have ensured this. So far, little has changed and more struggles will be necessary to enforce it.

In May this year sub-contracted miners struck at a major private mine, Collahuasi, in the Andes near Iquique. Police, and some reports say, troops, were sent in an army Hercules transport plane to evict them from their mining camp they had taken over, and 500 were sacked. At a recent employment fair in Santiago, a manager glibly announced that they had 350 vacancies!

Safety

In 2009 there were 191,000 recorded workplace accidents and 443 fatalities, compared with 285 murders (which, unlike the former, are always on the TV news). So every year work-related deaths are equivalent to February's earthquake and tsunami.

373 miners died in accidents in the last decade, and 31 so far this year. The mortality rate has fallen from 0.5% (!) in the '80s to 0.1% in 2009. In 2002, the President of the SONAMI that gave a prize to the owners of San José said: "The sector needs deregulation and more freedom....".

Aggravating the 'normal' greed of employers (and the 'normal' contempt for their workers shown by employers in Chile), another factor reducing safety standards is ideological: Even a government minister has spoken of being shocked at the 'excessive' concern for safety she found in the USA. "I leave some work for my guardian angel to do" she said.

In a country where the more superstitious aspects of Catholicism are given great publicity in the mass media, they have effects at all levels of society. There was even talk of finding the miners being a 'miracle'. To his credit, the local bishop of Copiapó refuted this, and repeated the strong criticism he had made of the employers.

The slogan 'People Before Profits' often seems an abstract, vague one. Here is a case of blatant abuse of human life for profit, only possible in a culture where 'free enterprise' and 'creation of jobs (at any price)' come before everything else.

The good news is that, despite the media painting Piñera as a saint for his good role in the rescue of the miners, the people are not buying it. In every sector of society people recognise that this businessmen´s government will not help them, and are beginning struggle of all kinds.

Almost simultaneously with the miners, 34 indigenous Mapuches won big concessions for their struggle for land and rights, after their hunger strike. Trade unions in the public and private sectors, including the hard-hit salmon producers in the south, are taking action.

Dan Morgan, Santiago, Chile, October 2010

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