MAC: Mines and Communities

Global Unions to hold Chile accountable on mine safety

Published by MAC on 2011-04-04
Source: Stronger Together

For previous coverage of the San José disaster see Chile's mendacious "miracle"


Global Unions to hold Chile accountable on mine safety

Stronger Together * - Issue 1

March 2011

For a country in which 49 per cent of all export revenue is derived from mining, Chile's mining safety is in the dark ages. A dichotomy was in full view last fall: while the government of Sebastián Piñera marshalled the very best global technical and engineering expertise to rescue 33 miners from the San José copper mine under the world's spotlight, Chile continues to wallow in safety practices that are cumbersome, unmanageable, and deadly.

Despite an October 18 Piñera promise heard throughout the world - five days after the rescue - that Chile would reform a disjointed national safety structure and adopt global standards, nothing has happened. In fact, in early 2011 ICEM met with senior government officials and was told there is nothing on the agenda to reform internal safety standards or to adopt global standards.

The ICEM reminded the leaders that just as Piñera lifted Chile's world status during the rescue, the country's significance is because it is a rich exporter of basic metals and minerals. If it is to be world-class in any way, it must implement world-class safe mining practices for the workers who dig those riches.

Thus, the ICEM, together with the IMF, began a campaign to press the Piñera government for change. That campaign was joined by other Global Union Federations, national unions, and trade union activists to demand that Chile ratify ILO Convention 176, the Safety and Health in Mines Convention. (See ICEM's global Convention 176 campaign.)

The campaign was joined simultaneously by unions affiliated with Chile's two main mine union federations, representing workers at both state-run copper company Codelco and at the major mining houses that own large-scale operations.

Government cynicism might best be found in the commission Piñera set up to investigate San José. No trade union representatives were invited to sit on the commission, even though 130 miners were represented by a union. ILO Convention 176 states that workers and their trade unions shall participate in mine inspections and accident investigations.

At San José, Union No. 2 of Campañia Minera San Esteban repeatedly warned of safety hazards and once even presented a legal challenge to close the mine. But the common refrain from both government and industry when unions warn on safety and health conditions is that the union's duty is to negotiate economics, not to take part in safety or health matters.

After a miner was killed in 2007, San José was shut for a brief period by SERNAGEOMIN, the National Service of Geology and Mining. But it quickly reopened on orders from another government official who failed to read the closure report, and relied on the owner's pledge that deficiencies would be corrected.

One such pledge was to install a ladder through a ventilation shaft as a second exit, a standard in Convention 176. That was not done, there were no follow-up inspections, and the lack of a second exit, in fact, led to the 69-day entrapment of the 33 miners.

SERNAGEOMIN is not a health and safety inspectorate. It plays that role, but so do bureaus inside six Chilean ministries. Chile has overlapping safety agencies inside the six that cover all sectors of work. None of them have judicial powers to enforce the few regulations there are in mining and all are without the technical capabilities to inspect and prevent accidents before they happen.

In short, all prerequisites of Convention 176 are missing in Chile: regular inspections, set procedures to report and investigate dangerous occurrences and accidents, trade union consultation, regulatory bodies with the authority to shut dangerous mines, the right to refuse unsafe work, workers' ability to select their own safety representatives, and employer obligations to provide training. Convention 176 places responsibility on employers to not only remove workplace hazards, but to remove the causes of those hazards.

That is why the ICEM has targeted Chile for reforming not only its own mine safety laws, but to ratify, implement, and fully adhere to the standards of ILO Convention 176.

* "Stronger Together" is a newsletter, published jointly by the International Metalworkers' Federation (IMF), the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) and the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF), which are currently aiming to form a new global industrial workers' federation.

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