article by Sergio Requena-Rueda  Coventry TUC delegate, currently in Chile, followed by our letter to the Chilean PM

I am very happy for the miners, their families and friends, for the successful rescue done by the miners´ colleagues, from the Chilean Copper Corporation (Codelco) and the support of many others, from around the world, be it rented machinery or technical people.

While I have been in Chile, I have read between the lines and, picked bits of information from 24 hours programs, a mix of Circus and Reality programs like Big Brother. Can you imagine yourself having to talk for hours in the middle of the desert about the different shades of colour of the sand or the clear sky to mark time and interviewing of people? Then, only guessing what could be happening inside with the miners and outside with the rescue efforts, as the reporters had very little facts to present.

The women, wives and relatives
Talking with my friend Gaby about the Miner's Wives actions, reminded us of the similarity of the Relatives of the Disappeared Political Prisoners during Pinochet´s Dictatorship and the organisation and actions to rescue their relatives.

What did not appear in the media about the rescue, was that it was the women who asked for help, placed themselves on the road when the team of rescuers started to abandon the mine (after the non successful first attempt of rescue). These wives stood in front of the lorries, some of them started to knock the pots where they prepared their food to call the attention, some of them picked up a couple of stones, started knocking them together as loud as they were able to do it.

They protested with such strength that at the end, they found their hands bleeding due to the extreme effort to be heard. It is believed that this call was one of the facts that made the authorities rethink the rescue action.

This collective action was in the same style as the Relatives of the Disappeared Political Prisoners during Pinochet´s Dictatorship. Those protesters were women looking for their disappeared men or relatives.

All the women had the conviction that their loved ones were alive. So when the rescue stopped, the relatives went to the authorities to demand the authorisation to carry out the rescue themseves, aided by the Pirquineros (Artisan independent miners working in abandoned mines).
This request was rejected.

At the beginning of the rescue, only wives set the camp at the San Jose mine, then later on, came lovers, cousins, and nephews.

The union colleagues
The Union Representative of the San Jose mine, Javier Castillo was barred from getting close to the mine during all this time. He managed to meet the recued miners in the hospital, who invited him to meet them at the mass on Sunday, where all the Mining families were going to be, but the strict control of the media show did not allow the colleague´s presence.

As a consequence of the collapse of the mine, it is now closed; there are over 300 miners out of work, but they have not received any salaries or compensation for the closure, after years of services. Javier has pledged to continue the struggle for the miner’s rights. Additionally, the government is not at all concerned for these miners, considering that this is a private issue with the owners of the mine.

On top of these problems, after three months of the collapse, no change has been produced in the protection laws or in the quality and quantity of supervision in other mines.

The government
This government and the previous government are responsible for not ratifying the Agreement 176 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), whose chair is a Chilean (Juan Somavia). This Agreement has created the objective conditions for this tragedy to be avoided. The ILO Agreement 176, was subscribed to by Chilean representatives from government, employer and workers only in June 1995, but until now it has not been ratified by the Chilean Parliament.

At the beginning of the tragedy, the way of thinking was, that as there is a private company involved, so this was a private problem. Later under the pressure of the relatives, the national outcry and the balance of potential publicity gains and point scoring, the government decided to support the rescue efforts.

When the first efforts to rescue the miners failed, the president didn’t come to the mine nor give clear indications of the continuity of efforts to save the lives, a fact which produced rage in the relatives of miners. Only when the president felt the women´s pressure and saw the potential publicity for him and his government, to continue the rescue, he went ahead, controlling very carefully the show for the media to gain political points.

The day contact was made with the miners at 700 metres down, one of the colleague´s of the miners, went to the camp to give the good news, that all the miners were alive. News was supposed to be kept in secret, until the president arrived to the mine, which took four hours. At that moment the president gave the news to the media, and even read a private letter to one of the wives, from her husband.

At present, the main minister involved in the rescue is being shown as a possible candidate for the next presidential election 2014, meanwhile the president was in a tour in Europe.

The mine´s owners
The owner´s of the mine, with or without laws, should have taken the appropriate measures to protect their employees.

It was the lack of seriousness towards the Health and Safety (H&S) recommendations in the mining industry that allowed entrepreneurs like those in San Jose, to carry on, with lack of responsibility for their workers. In the largest mines the Unions are strong and there H&S is enforced.

In Chile, it seems that mining accidents are a matter of luck. However, every fact points to the conclusion that the accident was foreseeable, not only the San Jose miners accident but others too. If due care of the security measures had been implemented, for example, the existence of two exits, or two alternative emergency exits, the rescue opperation would not have been necessary.

The accident was announced
It has been stated by the surviving miners, that a few hours before the accident, they heard loud noises, of rocks exploding or moving. They requested authorisation to exit the mine, which was denied. Profit and lowering the costs is more important than workers safety and lives.

Surviving miners have stated in interviews that they want those who took that decision, to be put to trial and sentenced to death.

The Church
After the rescue, some people shouted Miracle!!.
I have heard that someone wants to create a sanctuary in the mine, a place of pilgrimage or whatever, as they started with a saint’s name, “San Jose” and the rescue operation was call “San Lorenzo” patron saint of the miners. What I have heard about Saints and miracles, there is also an association with flower smells; on the other hand, my association with mines and deserts in Chile, when I was a Civil Engineering student, was the smell of sulphur, that I understand from local legends, detects the presence of the Diablo.
Time will tell.

The Miners
For me, rescue miner (No 9 in exiting the mine), Mario Gomez summarised the mining industry in Chile. Mario, 63 years old, started work in the mines at 12 years old, has lost three fingers in mining accidents, has among other sicknesses, silicosis.

Not all of them are long standing miners, they come from different places, peasants, ex army people, also among the group, there was a young man of 19 years old, and who had just started to work.

It was reported by a Chilean newspaper that when miner No 33 was rescued, simultaneously the 33rd miner was killed during 2010 due to mining accidents in Chile. Sad and strange coincidence.

At the beginning of July 2010, in the same San Jose mine, a worker lost his leg as a consequence of a collapse of a tunnel. The case is in the first stages in the courts, speeded up as a consequence of the event of the 33, but the owners have rejected the demands of compensation of the miner, and the case continues. Authorities then, knew, even from 2007 that this mine was dangerous and nobody took action to ensure safety..

At the moment, some miners are enjoying a celebrity status and that is good. We have to take into account that the media exploits the good part of the celebrities and also exploits the bad side too, and the miners could fall as a lead balloon.

Now in Chile there is an urgent need to rescue society from :
• Social inequality.
• The Pinochet dictatorship´s Constitution that rules the country, with its injust provisions for elections, to favour the right wing presence in Parliament.
• The unjust tax system.
• The clamping and even non existence of modern labour laws.
• The lack of provisions on health, educations and housing for the poor sectors.

 

our letter to the Chilean PM, also sent in Spanish - still awaiting a response:

His Excellency Miguel Juan Sebastián Piñera Echenique
President of the Republic of Chile
Palacio de La Moneda
Civic District
Santiago

16 November 2010


Re: the 33 Chilean Miners of the San José mine, Copiapó

We are very happy for the miners, their families and friends, for the successful rescue done by the miners’ colleagues, from the Chilean Copper Corporation and the support of many others, from around the world, be it rented machinery or technical people.
We recognise the heroic effort of their wives who asked for help, placing themselves on the road in front of the lorries when the team of rescuers started to abandon the mine, after the unsuccessful first rescue attempt. They protested with such strength that at the end, they found their hands bleeding due to their extreme effort to be heard.
We believe that this call was one of the facts that made the authorities rethink the rescue action.

You said on 12 October 2010 that "the mine will remain closed until security measures that guard the life and dignity of the workers are established." 300 miners are out of work; they have not received any salaries or compensation for the closure, after years of services.
The government should show concern for these miners and intervene; it is not simply a private issue with the owners of the mine.

Now is the time to improve the protection laws and the quality and quantity of supervision in other mines.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) Agreement 176 was subscribed to by Chilean government, employer and worker representatives in June 1995, but until now it has not been ratified by the Chilean Parliament.
This Agreement creates the objective conditions for this and other tragedies to be avoided.
We call on your government to ratify the Agreement 176 of the ILO, whose chair is a Chilean, Juan Somavia.

It was the lack of seriousness towards the Health and Safety recommendations in the mining industry that allowed entrepreneurs like those in San Jose, to carry on, with lack of responsibility for their workers. We understand that 33 miners had been killed in accidents this year in Chile in separate incidents by the time of this rescue.


The mine owners should have taken the appropriate measures to protect their employees.
Facts point to the conclusion that the San Jose accident was foreseeable:
• At the beginning of July 2010, in the same San Jose mine, a worker lost his leg as a consequence of a collapse of a tunnel. Owners have rejected the demands of compensation of the miner, and the case continues. Authorities then knew that this mine was dangerous and nobody took action to ensure safety.
• If due care of the security measures had been implemented, for example, the existence of two exits, or two alternative emergency exits, the rescue operation would not have been necessary.
• It has been stated by the surviving miners, that a few hours before the accident, they heard loud noises, of rocks exploding or moving. They requested authorisation to exit the mine, which was denied.

Will your government put pressure on the judiciary to adhere to the wishes of the surviving miners that those who took that decision be put to trial?

Profit and lowering the costs is not more important than workers safety and lives.


Yours sincerely,

 


Nick Kelleher,
Secretary
Wolverhampton, Bilston and District Trades Union Council; which represents over 15,000 workers