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MINING-CHILE: Make Good on Concern for Worker Safety, Say Unions

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Aug 30 2010 (IPS) - While efforts get underway to try to rescue the 33 miners who are trapped 700 metres underground in a mine in northern Chile, trade unions are calling on the country’s political leaders to tackle the underlying problems of worker safety.

“We applauded the government when it was focusing on finding our companions,” Néstor Jorquera, president of the CONFEMIN miners union, told IPS. “We sat tight, because we needed to know what their situation was. But now we know that thankfully they are alive, it’s time to say ‘enough!’ to so many abuses.”

CONFEMIN represents more than 18,000 miners who work at small, medium-size and large privately-owned mines in Chile, the world’s leading producer of copper.

On Aug. 5, 32 Chilean miners and one Bolivian were trapped in the San José copper and gold mine in the northern region of Atacama, after an explosion. San Esteban, the Chilean company that owns the mine, says it is on the verge of bankruptcy and that it may not be able to pay the miners their wages while they remain underground.

After repeatedly drilling in an attempt to reach the emergency shelter where the men were presumed to be, hammering sounds from below were finally heard after the eighth attempt, and on the 17th day after the tunnel collapse, a probe that was sent down brought back notes from the miners saying all 33 had survived.

But the different strategies being followed by the government of rightwing President Sebastián Piñera could take two to four months to rescue the miners.

Jorquera said the ratification of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 176 on safety and health in mines would be the best way for the country’s political leaders to show that the interest expressed these days in improving labour conditions in mines is real.

The Convention, which has been ratified by just 24 countries — in Latin America, only Brazil and Peru have done so — was adopted in 1995 and went into effect in 1998. It requires signatory states to legislate on safety in mines and to enforce regulations of the kind that were flouted in the San José mine, such as the requirement of two different escape routes.

“If a worker is in a mine where proper safety conditions are not in place, under the Convention he can automatically report the situation and stop working, and he would be protected,” Jorquera said. “But if you were to do that now in any mine (in Chile), you would be fired.”

However, ratification of the Convention has not been mentioned so far as part of the package of initiatives announced by Piñera in response to the mining accident that has riveted the world’s attention, and which is under investigation.

On Aug. 23, the president established a commission on work safety, made up of eight experts who will study the country’s labour safety and health regulations over the next three months.

Other measures, reported on Aug. 27, are the creation of a new mining superintendency to oversee mining permits and safety standards, the restructuring of the National Geology and Mining Service, an increase in funding for oversight, and the establishment of a nine-member expert advisory committee to review the country’s mine safety regulations.

But the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Chile’s largest labour federation, and the centre-left Coalition of Parties for Democracy, which governed Chile from 1990 to last March, decried the absence of labour and social leaders on the committees.

Besides the ratification of Convention 176, Jorquera called for attention to be focused on what he described as Chile’s weak labour laws, which he said undermine trade unions, weaken strikes and allow a situation in which subcontracted workers do not enjoy the same benefits as permanent employees.

“What is happening now is the consequence of our weak legislation,” he said. “I don’t blame this government. The problem is a long-standing one. There is no will to really change things,” not only for miners, he argued.

“Chiefly responsible for this accident were the lack of conscience on the part of the business community” and the state’s failure to curb the abuses against workers’ rights, the trade unionist said.

In the case of the San José mine, several workers have been killed in the last few years, and it has been shut down more than once for flagrant safety violations. Just a few weeks before the tunnel collapse, a miner lost a leg when he was trapped by fallen rock. However, the company was allowed to reopen after each incident.

In 2009, a total of 191,685 workplace accidents, including 443 deaths, occurred in this country of 17 million people. And 155 workers died in accidents in the first quarter of this year alone.

“Our laws and regulations are relatively stringent and strict, although there is room for improvement. The real problem lies elsewhere,” Carmen Espinoza, head of the non-governmental Labour Economy Programme (PET), told IPS.

The critical issue, in her view, “is the lack of a culture of prevention among businesses, principally, and among workers as well, who for logical reasons pay greater attention to keeping their jobs than to work safety.”

To that is added poor enforcement and oversight, she added.

“In terms of workplace safety, we are far from seeing a return to the active role that trade unions played in the past,” because of a lack of information, training and strength, Espinoza said.

“We believe that an increase in labour organisation would help strengthen safety regulations, above and beyond the penalties that companies might face,” CUT national adviser Marco Canales told IPS.

“Because they don’t have legal protection or because there is no union, the members of safety committees within companies often end up being laid off when they report irregularities,” he said. “We believe this government is not including these issues in its discussions” on the question of workplace safety, he added.

In 2009, just 12.5 percent of the workforce in Chile was unionised, according to official statistics, far below the average of the industrialised countries grouped in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which Chile joined this year.

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