By Gerard Soler Serrat
COPIAPO, Chile – While 33 miners remain trapped underground after an accident last week at a copper and gold mine near this northern city, union leaders are denouncing the growing dangerousness of mining in Chile.
Management operates “without listening to the voice of the workers when they say that there is danger or risk,” Javier Castillo – the secretary of the union representing employees of Compañia Minera San Esteban Primera, the owners of the San Jose deposit, 45 kilometers (28 miles) northeast of Copiapo – told Efe.
Castillo said that he worked in the San Jose mine but was “marginalized” from the company, which he accused of anti-union practices.
He said the desire for profit overrides everything else, and this leads to unfortunate occurrences like the accident at the mine four days ago.
“Our main concern is that the comrades (trapped in the mine) get out,” he said. “But there are deeper issues, and the union movement is going to unite, it’s going to be one body, and we’re going to lobby so that from this tragedy a new way of seeing labor relations in Chile emerges.”
The veteran miner listed the irregularities and the incidents that have taken place in mines operated by the San Esteban company in recent years.
In 2003, workers filed a protective measure in the courts to stop work at San Jose, but the effort did not bear any fruit.
Two workers have died at San Jose within the last seven years, while a third perished at the nearby San Antonio facility, another Minera San Esteban property.
Just a month ago, a worker at San Jose lost his leg in another accident in that mine.
Gerardo Nuñez, the head of the union at the nearby Candelaria Norte mine, told Efe that at San Jose his colleagues “did not have ways to evacuate,” something that contradicts the mining company’s obligation under the Mining Code.
He said that in the safety area, miners speak of “a general line with exceptions,” which means that “everything works the same as at the San Jose mine, with exceptions.”
“Fortunately,” he said, Candelaria Norte is one of these exceptions, with an escape route to another mine, three refuge shelters, constant monitoring of mining conditions and a strong adherence to regulations.
“A basic issue is whether the regulations are being adhered to or not. Practically, we’re selling copper with blood,” the miner concluded.
Nestor Jorquera, the president of the Confederacion Minera, an entity that groups several miners unions, lamented the fact that a productive sector that provides so much money to the country could be so dangerous for the workers.
“Chile lives from mining, it earns much money and the families are begging for something,” he said, as he pointed out the camp where relatives of the trapped miners are waiting anxiously for news of their loved ones.
In Jorquera’s judgment, mining in Chile is a very hierarchical sector dominated by the big mining firms, almost all of them foreign-owned, far more than by the medium and smaller companies.
He said that to exploit a mining deposit there must be an engineer, a safety superintendent and production chief, such that a balance between the mineral that’s extracted and the working conditions in the mine can be found.
“The production superintendent cannot impose himself on the safety (chief) to take out more mineral, and that occurs in a small mining company. They just want to take out mineral,” he emphasized to Efe.
As many relatives and friends of the trapped miners have commented outside the mine over the past few days, Jorquera – too – said that for weeks the workers had been warning that something was not going well at the San Jose mine.
“Nobody listens to us. Then they say we’re right. If they would have believed the workers, we would not be lamenting this now,” he said. EFE