Comradeship and populist demagogy
The media circus surrounding the rescued Chilean miners obscures the reality of naked capitalist exploitation, writes Eddie Ford
We are now more than familiar with the story of the 33 miners trapped 700 metres underground for 69 days in the San José copper-gold mine in Copiapó, northern Chile. How could we not be? An occupying army of some 2,000 journalists (about 61 for each miner) from over 40 different countries descended upon the area, determined to milk the story - or Hollywood-style drama, as it had now become - for everything it was worth: a ratings dream come true. There were continuous live feeds from the mine shaft, with tweeted and retweeted updates from Chilean officials - not to mention the hundreds of Facebook groups which sprang up in digital communion and solidarity with the miners and their families.
Of course, in the end there was the best possible outcome - and not just for the media. All 33 were rescued and brought to the surface, emerging from the Fénix 2 rescue capsule on October 13 - and handed a $450 pair of designer-made sunglasses from the Californian-based manufacturer, Oakley. After the last trapped miner - the shift foreman, Luis Alberto Urzúa - was winched to the surface, the rescue workers held up a sign saying, “Misión cumplida, Chile” (Mission accomplished, Chile) to the estimated one billion people or more watching events on live television around the world. The 54-year-old Urzúa has now become an international celebrity, credited with providing the inspiration and organisation necessary to survive in such a situation - stuck with meagre resources deep inside a mine shaft located in the hellish Atacama Desert, possibly the driest place on the planet.
Needless to say, the vulgar and distasteful media circus surrounding the rescue has obscured one very basic fact - that these miners, just like other miners throughout the world, are the victims of naked capitalist exploitation by the mining companies. Indeed, this entire mineral-rich region of Chile is home to numerous predatory companies determined to make a profit come what may. And due to “budget constraints” - what a surprise - there are only three inspectors for the Atacama region’s 884 mines (out of a grand total of 18 inspectors for the entire country). Capitalist heaven.
Inevitably, the result of such unfettered exploitation is that thousands of contract miners in the north of the country in small and medium-scale mining are forced to labour under inhuman conditions that endanger their lives on a daily, almost hour-by-hour, basis - for pitiful salaries. From this perspective, the San José disaster was no ‘accident’, but rather the result of the chronic and institutionalised negligence of the mining companies, transnational corporations, subcontractors and the government - all partners in crime chasing ever bigger profits.
The San José mine itself is owned by the San Esteban Mining Company, which has an appalling safety record - eight workers have died at the mine in 12 years and between 2004 and 2010 the company received 42 fines for breaching various safety regulations. Tellingly, the mine was actually shut down in 2007 when relatives of a miner who had died in an accident sued the company executives. However, the mine was reopened again in 2008 despite still failing to comply with the regulations. Why? Simple: because of the rising price of minerals on the world markets - creating an opportunity for Chile’s mining bosses to make big bucks quickly. Naturally, the Chilean government acceded to the wishes of the San Esteban Mining Company.
Then again, the Chilean government is big business in the shape of its billionaire president, Sebastián Piñera - often described as ‘Chile’s Berlusconi’. Specialising in populist demagogy peppered with generous references to god - presumably his backer as a self-proclaimed “Christian humanist” - Piñera made his fortune, like so many other of his ilk, in the aftermath of general Pinochet’s CIA-assisted 1973 coup against Salvador Allende and his reformist Popular Unity government. Once Allende was dead, Pinochet unleashed a bloody wave of terror against anyone identified as leftwing or progressive - thus enabling him to launch his free-market experiment upon Chile under the guidance of the ‘Chicago boys’, eager young zealots trained at the University of Chicago by Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger (or at its effective offshoot, the economics department at the Catholic University of Chile).
Under such favourable conditions - applauded as an “economic miracle” by Washington and Margaret Thatcher - Sebastián Piñera effortlessly rose through the ranks, as did his brother and former business partner, José, who had served as labour minister under Pinochet and has been described as “the world’s foremost advocate of privatising public pension systems”. Piñera owns Chilevisión, a terrestrial TV channel broadcasting nationwide, which is about to be acquired by Time Warner in order to avoid a ‘conflict of interests’. Between February and March of this year he sold 27% of his stake in LAN Airlines and he owns 13% of the Colo-Colo - Chile’s most popular football team. His enormous personal wealth is mainly attributable (leaving aside his highly privileged background) to his key role in introducing credit cards to Chile in the late 1970s and his subsequent investments. During the presidential election campaign of 2009-10 he held raffles in order to dish out household appliances and promised the poor a one-off cash bonus - but this did not amount to electoral bribery, of course.
This is the very same man who with sickening but understandable hypocrisy presented himself as the friend of miners when the Copiapó disaster occurred - a ruthless billionaire suddenly singing the praises of workers earning a paltry £1,000 per month under life-threatening conditions for his fellow entrepreneurs in the mining industry. Still, Piñera rose to the occasion alright - taking maximum political advantage of the developing situation. He was at Copiapó right from the beginning and, most importantly, at the very end - making sure he shared the media limelight with Urzúa when he finally emerged, adorned in a patriotic T-shirt like all the other miners. He gave hourly press conferences. He spoke in fluent English to the international press. Dressed in a photogenic red windbreaker, he strode around the grounds ostentatiously slapping engineers on the back, while his wife, Cecilia Morel - by contrast, dressed in virginal white - hugged the miners’ wives. Perfect TV.
The rescued miners became symbols of national unity - according to the story spun by Piñera. So in an on-location speech he invoked Chile’s recent bicentennial celebrations and said the miners were symbols of “unity, hope and faith”. He promised a “new deal” for the miners - and for other workers in the transport, fishing and construction industries - before going on to say that “never again in our country will we allow working in conditions so inhumane and so unsafe as happened in the San José mine and many other places in our country”.
Piñera, of course, was not the only one who wanted to get in on the act. The moral high ground is always inviting. Evo Morales, the Bolivian president and leader of the Movement for Socialism, was scheduled to be on site for the rescue, since one of the entombed miners was a Bolivian (Carlos Mamani) - unfortunately for him and his image, he arrived too late. Both Hugo Chávez and Barack Obama, united for once, praised the rescue effort and passed on their best hopes to the miners. Later, while in London, Piñera met David Cameron and gave a rock from the San José mine as a gift to the queen - that well known friend of the working class. As for pope Benedict XVI, during the crisis he has sent each man a rosary - taken personally to the mine by the archbishop of Santiago, cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa (despite the fact that not all the miners were Catholic, although Benedict might be heartened by the news that two of the miners converted to Catholicism whilst trapped underground).
In a display of rectitude, Piñera dismissed top officials of Chile’s mining regulatory agency and the department is now being ‘reorganised’ in light of the accident. Eighteen mines were shut down in the days following the San José accident and a further 300 may well be ordered to close. San José mine’s fate is unclear: it will remain in limbo for an extended period, as judicial processes are followed. Unsurprisingly, a lawsuit has been filed against the company and a judge has frozen $2 million in assets - with a lawyer for several of the miners’ families describing this as a refutation of the company’s claims of not having enough money to even pay the miners their pittance of a wage.
Perhaps some of ‘the 33’ will now make a lucrative career out of interviews, book deals, film rights, merchandise, etc - or maybe not. Yet now that the mine is closed, whether temporarily or permanently, the remaining 265 workers and 200 subcontractors who were employed at the San José mine face destitution - not something the headlines care to emphasise. Some were able to make some money driving the journalists around and so on, but now that the circus has left town even that source of income has dried up - with no help from the government forthcoming.
Under Chilean law, the miners are supposed to receive a month’s wages in severance pay for every year they have worked for the company and they were promised that money with their final pay cheque on October 8. But this payment has been delayed until at least December, whilst the official appraiser compiles his report-back to creditors on whether the mine should be declared bankrupt or not. In the words of Javier Castillo, the secretary of the union representing the San José miners: “We need money to put bread on the table now. December is a long way off, and even if I were to find a new job straight away, you don’t get paid until you’ve worked there for at least a fortnight. What are we supposed to live off in the meantime?”
However, under-secretary of social security Augusto Iglesias has already declared that it is not the government’s job to pick up the bill or provide financial assistance to the miners - “due process” has to run its course. So much for Piñera’s “new deal”. In the meantime, according to Iglesias, the government is helping “where it can” - for instance, organising a jobs fair, which many of the region’s main employers attended. Though he did have to admit that the event was less than successful, given that “many of the miners were not willing to move to other towns” - which, of course, “makes it more difficult to find work for them”, as he explained. Get on your bike, Chilean-style - across the Atacama Desert. According to one of the San José (former) miners who went to Iglesias’s jobs fair, the bosses there were only interested in taking advantage of the unemployed miners, offering even lower wages and even worse working conditions: “They wanted us to move far away, but wouldn’t pay for our accommodation or even the travel expenses,” he pointed out.
In other words, the San José miners have been well and truly abandoned - effectively left to starve. So back to capitalist business as usual then, now that the cameras have gone.
Obviously, the disgusting and cruel plight of the miners in Chile is just symptomatic of the mining industry worldwide - a ruthless cut-throat business like any other. The International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers Unions (ICEM) calculates that there are over 12,000 reported miners’ deaths a year, with 34 a year in Chile. Of course, the actual death count is much higher - the worst culprit being ‘socialist’ China. In the words of the ICEM: “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.”
But, as the ICEM catalogues, major accidents during the last 10 months in Turkey have killed 59 miners - all of whom were totally unprotected by a trade union - and in Colombia, 73 non-union miners died in a huge explosion, mainly due to the lack of methane detectors and the inability of miners to refuse unsafe work. Then in the United States 29 non-union 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. And so on.
However, the good news that came out of northern Chile was the comradely discipline, cooperation and solidarity of the miners - even The Independent noticed that the “key to the miners’ survival was their ability to put the common good before self-interest”. In that sense, the self-activity and self-organisation of the San José miners - real historical individuals, not the cardboard cut-out ‘heroes’ that the asinine media wanted to construct - provided us with a glimpse of incipient communism - of the society of the future, where the market or egotistical individualism played no role. Maybe general Pinochet’s legacy is not so secure after all.
For the here and now, with regards to the San José disaster - and for the mining industry in general - the right to join a trade union is the bottom line. Communists certainly fight for health and safety inspectors to be elected by the workers. Companies should be forced to publish annual statistics related to all industrial and workplace accidents and all the costs of accidents to workers should be the sole responsibility of the company - or the government, if the company does not cough up. Irresponsible employers should be held criminally responsible and jailed if necessary. The workers themselves must control every aspect of mining operations.
- B Lindsey Against the dead hand: the uncertain struggle for global capitalism New York 2002, p224. José Piñera is now a distinguished senior fellow at the Cato Institute - a libertarian think tank based in Washington; president of the International Center for Pension Reform, based in Santiago; senior fellow at the Italian think tank, Istituto Bruno Leoni, and member of the advisory board of the Vienna-based Educational Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe.
- The Independent October 14.