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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Mar 23, 2011, 8:15 am

After the Rescue: Unions Push Chile to Adopt International Mining Standards

BY Akito Yoshikane

As rescued miners heal, President Piñera accused of using last year's mine emergency as "public relations guise"

It was just five months ago when the world witnessed the dramatic rescue of the 33 Chilean miners trapped half-a-mile underground.

The resilient workers turned global heroes were catapulted into the spotlight amid clarion calls of improving the industry’s regulatory standards. But in the afterglow of the media attention, several union groups still say Chile’s workplace safety standards remain unchanged. And many miners are still suffering health effects.

The San Jose mine that left the workers trapped for 67 days had come under intense scrutiny for its safety violations, and was recently rebuffed by a report released by Chile's congress. Earlier this month, an investigation into the mine by members of a country’s congressional commission unanimously found the owners of the mine responsible for the accident. The owners have maintained they were not negligent.

The union at the San Jose mine as well as other domestic labor groups had repeatedly called for tougher safety regulations before and after the accident. The report is also expected to bolster the miners case for a reported lawsuit they are planning to file against the owners.

But criticism has also shifted toward the Chilean government for failing to enforce safety rules. The same commission report found the country’s mine safety agency “administratively responsible” for regulatory failures, and labor groups are now calling for Chile to fulfill its promise to sign international labor conventions.

This month, four global unions have called upon President Piñera to ratify the International Labour Organisation Convention on safety in mines (known formally as ILO Convention 176).

Many unions are upset at President Piñera for reneging on his pledge to implement better mining standards following the accident. President Piñera greeted the miners when the workers re-surfaced back in October. He later declared his intention to institute reforms to prevent "conditions so insecure and inhuman as those inside the San Jose mine," according to the AP.

The president said he would amend mine safety laws “within 90 days” of the accident, but International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow says “nothing has changed” and miners are still facing health and safety risks.

Along with the ITUC, the International Chemical, Energy and Mining Federation (ICEM), the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF), and even the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) have called on the president to sign the framework. Martin Pascual, chairman of a Chilean nonprofit coalition Accion, points out that 11 miners have died since the San Jose accident.

In a joint letter by the ICEM and IMF, the unions accuse Piñera of using the San Jose mine disaster as a "public relations guise with no intent to change archaic mine safety structures" despite meeting with government representatives in January. The unions are pushing for the convention because it will lay the groundwork for improving the domestic policies. They write:

Both ICEM and IMF believe that the principles inside Convention 176 can and will provide the framework for revising the mine safety laws in Chile. For example, there is no room now for trade union health/safety committees to play a role in Chile’s mining industry.

That is an inherent part of Convention 176. And it is a universal fact that when a union safety committee is engaged with a mining company and an official regulatory agency, the risks in mining get reduced dramatically.

Meanwhile, the miners are still coping with the emotional scars from the ordeal. One third of the miners are still undergoing treatment for health-related issues, according to the AFP. Eleven of the 33 workers are on medical leave while receiving medication and psychotherapy for “post traumatic stress symptoms.” Some of the workers still face nightmares and anxiety and are unable to go back to work.

Ratifying the international convention would go a long way. Mines like San Jose provided copper and gold, a significant part of the country’s economy. Chile is the largest copper producer and its mines produce one-third of the global supply. Naturally, the proposed regulation would provide basic protections for a sizable workforce as the country’s economy continues to rapidly grow.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He can be reached at akitoyoshikane [at] gmail.com

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