Education International
Education International

Chile: Miners rescued, concern remains for workers’ safety

published 19 October 2010 updated 19 October 2010

EI and its affiliate, Colegio de Profesores, have welcomed the successful rescue of 33 miners in Copiapó, Chile, and called on authorities to guarantee workers’ rights to health and safety in the workplace.

Colegio de Profesores President, Jaime Gajardo, said: “We are happy that the miners in San José have been safely rescued. We believe that life has won, that human rights have won, and that the people of Chile have won.

“It is important for every government to confront the issue of safety at work through concrete legislation which ensures the participation of worker. In our country we must also make the work of all Chileans more humane” he added.

“Precarious work and a lack of safety are deeply felt today, not only in the mining industry, but in all sectors, and this must lead us to give stronger health and safety protections,” Gajardo added.

Elsewhere, the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s Director-General, Juan Somavia, said: “As the ILO Director-General and a Chilean, I share the joy of millions of people all over the world at the return of these heroes from the depths of the earth. We cannot allow ourselves to forget how this terrible drama began, a group of miners found themselves trapped underground because safety measures were inadequate. Safety at work is a core concern of the ILO.”

Somavia went on to explain, “the mining sector employs one per cent of the global labour force, yet it generates eight per cent of fatal accidents. Every day, 6,300 people die from occupational injuries or diseases, amounting to an annual total of 2.3 million deaths. To this we can add a further 337 million accidents at work per year.”

The 70 national mining unions that are affiliated to the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM) closely monitored the situation after the disaster and sent messages of solidarity. The ICEM estimates that at least 12,000 miners are killed on the job every year.

ICEM Mining Secretary, Joe Drexler, said: “Mining trade unions applaud the efforts of Chile’s government and the international response. However, unions are concerned by what happens after the rescue is over. Will this dramatic international incident prompt governments and employers to do more to protect the lives of miners? This is a question not only for Chile but one for governments and employers throughout the world.”

Drexler pointed out that chief cause of “continued mining tragedies is government and employer opposition to unionisation. As long as miners do not have rights protected by a union and a legal collective bargaining agreement, they will be forced to work under conditions that jeopardize their lives. In Chile existing labour laws are weak. Employers have no obligation to negotiate even after a trade union is formed, and multiple trade unions can exist at any one site, which plays into the hands of employers to keep workers divided.”

Drexler added: “Unless governments improve mining laws and labour laws, there will not be an improvement in the working lives of miners. The President of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, who has featured prominently in world news coverage and whose popularity has soared since the mine collapse, is avowedly anti-union.”

“A second major cause of mining disasters is poor enforcement of mining laws and regulation. The ICEM has been promoting ILO Convention 176 on Health and Safety in Mines since 1995. It was developed on a tripartite basis with trade unions, governments and employers to ensure that mining laws and regulations met core standards to protect miners. Yet after 15 years, only 24 countries have ratified the Convention,” Drexler said.

The fate of the Chilean workers created a wave of solidarity around the world. The General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress in the United Kingdom, Brendan Barber, sent a letter to the Chilean Ambassador to “call on the government of Chile to ratify ILO Convention 176 on Safety and Health in Mines because ratifying this would be a positive step towards putting in place the systems needed to ensure that a similar disaster does not occur again in the Chilean mining industry.