Chile: 33 miners rescued —but 31 died in past year

While the world media focused on the successful rescue of 33 Chilean miners on Oct. 12 and 13—69 days after they had been trapped by a collapse in the San José gold and copper mine in the northern Atacama region, Chilean union leaders charged that persistent problems with safety in the country’s mines were being downplayed.

In the past decade Chilean 373 miners have died in accidents, 31 of them in the past year. Most of the deaths occurred in small- and medium-sized privately owned mines and among the freelance miners known as pirquineros; the multinationals and the state-owned copper mining enterprise, Corporación Nacional del Cobre, have a low rate of accidents. Reporting by journalists Pablo Obregón and Carla Gardella suggests that the accident rate increases as prices for copper rise and owners push to speed up the rate of extraction. There were 28 fatal mining accidents in 2002, when the price of copper on world markets was very low; the number rose to 40 in 2007 as the price of copper rose.

The San Esteban company, which owns the San José mine, has a record of safety problems. When a miner died at San José in 2004, the workers protested, calling the death “the culmination of a series of accidents” over the previous five years. The site was temporarily closed in 2007 because of structural problems, but the authorities decided to reopen it. The collapse that trapped the 33 miners on Aug. 5 was “an accident that never should have happened,” according to Marco Canales, a leader in the Unified Workers Confederation (CUT), the main Chilean labor federation.

Although right-wing president Sebastián Piñera has gotten a great deal of favorable publicity from the rescue of the miners, the media have generally ignored his government’s decision a few days before the San José collapse to close the Labor Ministry office in charge of enforcing standards for workers. After the collapse, it came out that the government agency charged with monitoring the safety of mines, the National Geology and Mining Service (Sernageomin), had just two inspectors in the whole Atacama region, where dozens of small- and medium-sized mines operate. (La Jornada, Mexico, Oct. 16; Economía y Negocios, Chile, Aug. 15)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct. 17.

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