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LABOUR-PERU: National Strike Called in Solidarity with Casapalca Miners

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Jul 9 2007 (IPS) - Peru&#39s National Federation of Miners, Metalworkers and Steelworkers has called a nation-wide strike for Tuesday and Wednesday, in solidarity with more than 1,500 workers at the Casapalca mine who walked out in May. The conflict has resulted in five deaths so far.

On Friday, for the first time, the company owners agreed to sit down and talk with the workers and the authorities.

"We hope that our grievances will finally be redressed. We are not opposed to mining as such, but we want the company owners to understand that we&#39re only asking for better treatment," the secretary general of the Casapalca Workers&#39 Union, Rafael Cabezas, told IPS.

Cabezas and other mineworker leaders continued to meet with government authorities and the company owners, Alejandro and Carlos Gubbins, on Saturday at the Labour Ministry, in an effort to reach an agreement.

According to Cabezas, the major obstacle in the negotiations was the issue of the reinstatement of 106 workers who were fired nearly two months ago for establishing a trade union.

More than 1,500 workers from 12 contracting companies that provide services to the Casapalca mine formed a union on May 17 to back their demands for improved working conditions. The union&#39s general secretary was fired the same day, and 105 workers, including some 20 union leaders, were sacked a few days later.

Since then, the mineworkers have been on strike, occupying the area surrounding the Casapalca mine, in Huarochirí province, a three-hour drive from the capital.

To survive on no pay, the striking miners and their wives are cooking their meals in community soup kitchens set up on the roadsides of the Central Highway. This major route connecting the capital with the central Andean region was blocked by the strikers for several weeks.

When the Labour Ministry promised to step up pressure on the Casapalca mining company to address the workers&#39 demands, roadblocks were removed on Jun. 27. That day the conflict claimed its fifth victim: during a battle between law enforcement officers and protesters, a policeman was struck on the head by a rock, and died instantly.

Earlier, two miners had been killed in confrontations with the police, and two people with health problems who were travelling on the Central Highway also died when they were trapped in the road block and could not receive medical attention.

"We don&#39t want any more violence, but our protests are not unreasonable. We earn next to nothing per day," Luis Castro, a miner who is paid 22 soles (about seven dollars) a day for 12 hours of back-breaking work, told IPS.

Of the 1,900 people who work at Casapalca, 1,700 are employed by outside contractors, although their work is central to the mine&#39s operations. Only 200 workers, most of whom are administrative staff, appear on the mine&#39s employee roster, according to the Labour Ministry.

Workers&#39 basic gross pay is 675 soles (213 dollars) a month, but after deductions for social security, meal service and others, their take-home pay is only 343 soles (108.5 dollars).

The miners want to be paid an average of 50 soles (15.80 dollars) a day, comparable to the wages earned by their colleagues in nearby mines.

Most of the workers have to rent rooms near the mining camp, because many of them come to Huarochirí from the Andean region, bringing their families with them, and the housing offered by the company is overcrowded.

Casapalca&#39s chief lawyer, Dwight Falvy, insists that it is not the mining company&#39s responsibility to improve the labour conditions, but rather the contracting companies&#39.

Apparently the mine has contracted companies in wobbly financial shape to carry out high-risk work that produces millions of dollars.

IPS was able to confirm that one of the contractors, POVAMA, an individually owned limited liability company, has a working capital of less than 2,000 dollars, according to the National Superintendency of Public Registries (SUNARP).

Similarly, the San Antonio contracting company has a capital of 2,943 dollars, and VIDELCA has 3,000 dollars.

Labour Minister Susana Pinilla says that the meagre capital of some of the contracting companies would confirm the workers&#39 complaints, and their violation of the law of labour intermediaries, which is currently under review.

The Council of Ministers is analysing the situation of contracting companies so that labour abuses are not committed, Pinilla said.

She also told IPS that her ministry will propose that mining companies that commit serious breaches of labour laws should have their concessions withdrawn.

Present legislation only provides for definitive closure of mining operations in cases of environmental damage. In the next few days, the government&#39s Supervisory Organism of Investment in Energy and Mines is expected to report on accusations of pollution of the Rímac River, close to the Casapalca mine.

Because the mine owners repeatedly refused to sit down at the negotiating table with the miners&#39 leaders and government authorities, the Labour Ministry fined Casapalca and its contractors 31,645 dollars for anti-union practices.

The employers&#39 stubbornness led Minister Pinilla to remark that one of Casapalca&#39s owners, Alejandro Gubbins, was a businessman "who lives in another century, because in the 21st century companies must enjoy good social relations in order to remain competitive."

The Minister for Energy and Mines, Juan Valdivia, and even the president of the National Society of Mining, Petroleum and Energy, Ysaac Cruz, who represents the country&#39s major mining business sector interests, added their voices to the criticisms of Casapalca.

The Labour Ministry also ordered the companies to pay workers their salaries for the month of May, which had been withheld because of the strike. As of Thursday, miners began to receive their back-pay.

"If the company is doing well, why doesn&#39t it even maintain our anti-pollution protective equipment properly? Our uniforms and respiratory equipment are in poor condition, and we are in danger," Rafael Yance, 20, told IPS.

Yance works drilling rocks to extract minerals. Copper, silver, lead and zinc are mined at Casapalca.

Because of the bonanza in mineral prices, Casapalca declared gross income of over 43 million dollars in 2005, an increase of 33 percent compared to the previous year, according to the non-governmental organisation Programme for Labour Development (PLADES).

Considering the trend of net profits in the mining sector, Casapalca is more than likely to have doubled its profits in the last two years. Mining contributes 60 percent of Peruvian export revenues, a total of close to 16 billion dollars in 2006, and 26 percent of domestic tax revenues.

Despite the good news on the fiscal side, the bad news is that social conflicts with communities living near the mines and with workers demanding better working conditions have increased.

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