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As World Watches and Waits for Rescue of Trapped Chilean Miners, What Can Prevent Future Disasters?

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11 October, 2010

News of the rescue of the 33 trapped miners in Chile dominates news outlets throughout the world. The seventy national mining unions that are affiliated with International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM) are closely following the disaster and have sent numerous solidarity messages. Their immediate concerns and hopes are that all the miners are brought out safely to be reunited with their families, and are restored to good health.

Mining trade unions applaud the enormous efforts of the Chilean government and the international response. However unions are just as concerned as to what happens after the rescue is accomplished. 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.

The ICEM estimates that at least 12,000 miners are killed on the job every year (no reliable international statistics are available). Fatalities and serious injuries will not be reduced or even eliminated without addressing underlying and interrelated causes of most mining disasters today.

A chief cause of continued mining tragedies in most countries is government and employer opposition to unionization. So 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 labor 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.

The lack of democratic trade unions in China, where mining deaths far exceed those of other countries is a key cause of its staggering number of fatalities. In 2009, China recorded 2,600 official fatalities in coal mines. Actual figures are unknown. Some NGOs have estimated mining fatalities in China as high as 10,000 per year.

Three major fatal accidents in the last ten months in Turkey killed 59 miners, all of whom were unprotected by a trade union. In Colombia, 73 nonunion miners without a voice on the job died in an explosion largely due to the lack of methane detectors in the mine and the inability of miners to refuse unsafe work. In the U.S. 29 nonunion miners died in West Virginia because they had no power to demand even the most rudimentary protection at Massey Energy, one of the country’s most notorious anti-union employers.

Unless governments not only improve mining laws but also labor laws, there will not be a dramatic improvement in the working lives of miners. Sebastion Pinera, the president of Chile who has been prominently featured in world news coverage and whose popularity has soared since the mine collapse, is avowedly anti-union. His political roots are linked to the Pinochet dictatorship which in 1973 overthrew Chile’s democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende.

A second major cause of mining disasters is poor mining laws and regulation, or poor enforcement of them, even when international standards are met. The ICEM has been in forefront of promoting International Labor Organization Convention 176 on Health and Safety in Mines since 1995 and last year renewed its campaign. Convention 176 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. The government of India, which has an estimated 600,000 miners, opposed hosting a 2009 tripartite regional meeting for Asia sponsored by the ILO to discuss the Convention. Mining unions there have threatened to strike if the government does not move forward with ratification.

There is little progress toward ratification in Colombia where the ICEM sponsored a tripartite meeting on Convention 176 in conjunction with the ILO, despite Colombia’s desperate needs to improve its image in the eyes of the world. Governments in Russia and Ukraine, which have experienced some of the most severe mining tragedies, have been slow to react to trade union demands for ratification. Not a single major multinational employer has stepped forward to work with the ICEM to promote Convention 176. The ICEM offered to work with the International Council on Mining and Metals, an employers group comprising most of the major mining companies, to promote ratification but there was no response.

Among the many important provisions of Convention 176 are: safety representatives elected by the miners, two points of exit from the mine (which did not exist in the Chilean mine), regular mine inspection, and most importantly, the right of miners to withdraw from unsafe conditions.

In some countries that have ratified the convention, laws and regulations are diluted or not enforced. In the United States, which ratified the convention in 2000, the regulatory agency charged with enforcing mining laws was dramatically reduced by the George W. Bush administration, and mine inspections were severely cut back. The result was a series of predictable accidents at largely nonunion mines including the West Virginia explosion that was the most serious U.S. mining accident in two decades. The government had cited the mine with over 1,500 major safety violations in five years, but had permitted the mine to operate. Many governments allow mine employers to pay small fines rather than making them correct the problem. Corruption and bribes are also closely associated with the lack of enforcement of mine health and safety laws.

Compensation systems based largely on production and not on an adequate hourly wage also make mines more dangerous. Low hourly wages and basing compensation on production force individual miners to compromise health and safety to earn sufficient income for their families. This has been cited as a major reason for continuing deaths and injuries in Russia and Ukraine.

The increased use by mining employers of contract workers in mines, thereby substituting experienced miners with poorly-trained and ill-equipped precarious workers, is not only inhumane, it endangers the life of all miners. A survey conducted by the ICEM in 2008 revealed a disturbing and growing trend toward the use of contract work in the mining industry and throughout the world. The nonunion miners killed in Turkey and Colombia were contract workers.

Inadequate capital, technology and training to improve health and safety also endanger miners. Mines operated by smaller and undercapitalized entities are inherently more dangerous. A very high proportion of mining accidents occur at mines operated by employers who lack the capital, economies of scale, and technologies to operate safely.

A final reason for continued mining disasters is employer greed. Even well-capitalized and profitable multinational companies are being tempted by high commodity prices to place more emphasis on production than safety. Some dangerous mines, which closed just a few years ago when metal prices collapsed, have been opened up to take advantage of the temporary spike in prices. Production during times of high prices for raw materials trumps health and safety, despite employer claims to the contrary.

Chile’s expenditure to save the trapped miners in San Jose , which some have estimated at 15 million (USD), and its dismissal of some mine regulators for failing to enforce the law and pronouncements to change practices, stands in sharp contrast to what the government spent to safeguard the lives of miners before the incident occurred. With over 900 private mines covering the 4,300 km length of the country, Chile had only 18 mining inspectors. Reports of routine corruption that allowed unsafe mines to remain open have been widespread. It remains to be seen what Chile’s government and employers will do to improve the safety of miners and all workers after the television cameras are removed and the media story fades. In the end, it is the workers and their trade unions in Chile and elsewhere who provide the only real hope that miners’ lives can be saved and the conditions in mines will be improved.

One of the best examples of what needs to be done to save the lives of miners and reduce injuries is found in South Africa where just a few years ago tragic deaths due to accidents in its deep and aged underground mines were increasing dramatically rather than decreasing. In 2007, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) engaged in a general strike of mineworkers over health and safety. This was the first national mining strike for health and safety in the history of organized labor. Over 200,000 mineworkers walked off the job to protest lack of employer and government efforts to safeguard miners. Although problems continue, the NUM has reversed the trend and is working to lessen significantly the number of injuries and fatalities. Today, when a fatality occurs at a mine, NUM members routinely lay down their tools and strike in protest.

The ICEM mining sector is dedicated to support unionization, promote ILO Convention 176, end the scourge of contract work in the mining industry, and fight against compensation systems that compromise health and safety. Our slogan is, “the stronger the union, the safer the mine.” Manuals to campaign for Convention 176 are available from the ICEM in English, Russian, Spanish and French. View the ICEM webpage on Convention 176 here.