It’s a remarkable story of human survival underneath 700,000 tons of rock for a record of 69 days. Certainly the 33 trapped men would be globally regarded as heroes even if their rescue hadn’t been successful and televised to audience of a billion. Yes, I’m talking about the mining accident in Chile, which undoubtedly will be one of the best remembered media events of 2010.
However behind the frenzy of cameras and reporters, there is a much less joyful story. This September, Grupo San Sebastián, the San Jose mines parent company, was declared bankrupt, leading to the mines closure and 300 jobs being lost. Considering this it seems bitterly ironic that the Chilean government often repeated the slogan “All Chile with the miners”. Those unemployed picket with their own slogan; “Trapped on the surface”. The bankruptcy has also led to doubts over whether the company can afford to pay the trapped miners their promised compensation.
The event has also shed light on the general working conditions of Chilean miners. Mining is a huge industry in Chile, accounting for 40% of the country’s GDP. Copper, in particular makes up a large portion of this, and has been described as “Chile’s gold”. In 1980 under the dictatorship of Augustus Pinochet, mining was privatised in order to stimulate economic growth and protect the profits of the large corporations, effectively eliminating trade unions and safety regulations. Jose Pinera, the older brother of the current President was the labour minister at the time, and this code has essentially unchanged since. Approximately 39 people die each year in Chilean mines at the expense of establishing economic power and providing wealth to the business owners.
The San Jose mine is one of many small sites across Chile and a look at its previous safety record exemplifies the working practices of the countries industry as a whole. In 2006 alone there were 182 people injured, 56 of them severely – a truck driver became the 80th fatal victim reported in total.
A rock explosion which killed a geologist led to its closure in 2007, but it was reopened the following year due to rising demands in copper. It’s reopening was in fact conditional, the owners were supposed to build a ladder which connected the shelter to the surface, but as the trapped miners discovered, only a third had been completed. Miners across the country commonly suffer from silicosis, a preventable condition caused by prolonged exposure to silica dust.
An uncle of one of the trapped miners told The Times that there is a “culture of silence” amongst Chilean miners. Complaining about working conditions puts their employment at risk. Perhaps though in the future that will change; the prominence and exposure that the trapped miners have received worldwide may be the first step towards the Chilean government considering revising its policies on labour.