CHILEPublished by MAC on 2007-07-30
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Copper Miners' Strike May Set a Precedent for Labour Rights
By Daniela Estrada, IPS - 30th July 2007
WORKERS ON STRIKE AT EL PEÃ‘ON IN CHILE
"El PeÃ±on Is A Boiling Pot That Is About To Explode"
EL MERCURIO, MERIDIAN GOLD, AND FEDERACION MINERA DE CHILE
By Matt Malinowski
31st August 2007
Subcontracted workers blocked production at the Canadian-owned El PeÃ±on mine Wednesday. This action represents the first complete take-over of a private mine in Chile's history, and comes amidst increased labor unrest nationwide. The mine's disgruntled workers are demanding to negotiate directly with the company about improvements in ten areas, higher work bonuses, health insurance, the construction of a cafeteria and rest quarters, and salaries. Additionally, as most workers must commute three hours to and from the mine, they desire that the Meridian Gold implement more flexible work hours.
The workers made their grievances known through a petition, delivered to company officials Wednesday. According to Roberto Arriagada, President of the Antofagasta Contracted Workers' Federation, the strike was provoked by "precarious labor and economic conditions which are present at the mine. This take-over is indefinite as long as there is no dialogue."
Rafael Mella, Meridian Gold's Director of Human Resources, told the Chilean daily El Mercurio Wednesday that the company immediately dismissed workers' demands that company negotiate directly with them. Furthermore, he stated that Meridian Gold will rely on Gardilcic, the subcontracted company Meridian Gold has assigned with the responsibility of recruiting and compensating the subcontracted workers, to resolve the dispute. Unfortunately, despite repeated phone calls, the Santiago Times was not able to obtain any information from Meridian Gold with respect to the strike.
Meanwhile, the mine's labor leaders remain determined to both sit down at the negotiation table with company heads and obtain more benefits. "We have presented the company with many possible alternatives, both for the short-term and medium-term, in order to avoid a much larger conflict. But they have continually denied us," stated a press release issued by the El PeÃ±on worker's syndicate. The syndicate represents more than 90 percent of the mine's workers.
"We arrive home at 3 a.m. and then we have to turn around and leave to go back to work at 1 p.m. the same day. How are we supposed to both sleep and spend time with our families? We spend far less than 10 hours a day at home," explained Guillermo Grancke, President of the El PeÃ±on Worker's Syndicate. Grancke went on to dismiss another option available to mine employees: the idea of granting one full afternoon's worth of rest. "If employees have to leave work at 12 a.m., arrive home at 3 a.m., and then have to go back to work again at 9 p.m. that night, then the will not even have one period of 24 continuous hours of rest per week."
El PeÃ±on is a high grade gold and silver mine owned and operated by the Canadian company Meridian Gold. The mine is located in the Atacama Desert in Region II of northern Chile, about 100 miles southeast of the port city of Antofagasta at an elevation of 6,000 feet above sea level. Since opening in September 1999, the mine has steadily increased its production and, this year, it is expected to produce 230,000 ounces of gold and approximately 8.8 million ounces of silver. Furthermore, El PeÃ±on is particularly well-known as one of the lowest-cost producers in the world.
This conflict comes after similar strikes which have rocked Chile's cellulose, fruit, and food processing industries. Specifically, it is reminiscent of a 37-day- long strike between the state-owned copper company CODELCO and subcontracted workers. That strike, which was resolved in July with the help of the Catholic Church, ended up costing CODELCO an estimated US$90 million (ST, Aug. 1). The conflict only ended when Codelco agreed to negotiated directly with the subcontracted workers and not involve the subcontracting companies that otherwise would have negotiated with it.