Like everyone else, I was deeply moved by the rescue of the Chilean miners. But of course, being a sociologist being a curse, several things immediately emerged.
The first one is the labor issue. Under what working conditions can such a thing happen, especially in light of the previous serious mining accidents in the US? The Guardian Poverty Blog offers a few ideas:
“Several commentators – including international trade unions – have pointed to Chile’s failure to ratify International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions on safety and health in mines, and drawn attention to the consequences of inadequate workplace safety standards across the country. According to the Inter Press Service, in 2009 alone Chile had a total of 191,685 workplace accidents, including 443 deaths.
Carmon Espinoza, head of the Chilean NGO Programa de Economia del Trabajo (Labour Economy Program) remarked in late August that job insecurities mean miners “for logical reasons pay greater attention to keeping their jobs than to work safety”.
The San José mine, in particular, is no stranger to workplace tragedy: over a dozen lives have been lost there in recent years.
Bélgica Ramírez, sister-in-law of one of the trapped miners, suggested that even if workers did express their concerns, they were ignored. “The mine was in precarious condition and they [the miners] always told the bosses, but the only thing they cared about was production,” she said.
In early September, a Guardian report revealed that “the dangers were so well known that locals called its miners ‘the kamikazes’.” Even the owners of the mine recognised the dangers, offering “salaries 30% higher than average, a tacit acknowledgement that the job required extraordinary sacrifices”.
Other commentators went further, arguing that the mine collapse happened not in spite but because of Chile’s rapid economic growth and reliance on an export-oriented development strategy.
Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper, and the country’s often-congratulated 4-5% growth rate has been largely fuelled by copper exports to Europe, the US, China and India. The government celebrates Chile’s status as a prime investment destination, and is proud to proclaim the country as Latin America’s fastest growing economy.
However, though Chile’s drop in absolute poverty rates (which have fallen from 40% in 1990 to 14-15% today) is accredited to the country’s rapid and sustained economic growth, inequality figures have barely budged. According to the 2009 UN human development report, of the 147 countries for which there are figures, Chile is the 19th most unequal state in the world in terms of the social distribution of the country’s wealth. Figures from the report suggest that the richest 10% account for 40% of Chile’s income and expenditures, while the poorest account for only 1.6%.
While labour standards and workers’ rights are often sidelined by the aggressive “pro-growth” talk of development economists, they are fundamental components of social or human development.”
Chile is not exceptional in that respect. This is the model of development that has been pushed by institutions of global governance (the whole comparative advantage idea along with good old-fashioned trickle-down economics).
This avoided tragedy should get us to reconsider not just models of development but also the fact that, in the 21st century, we still have a lot of people working at such jobs and working conditions.
The other thing I could not help notice as I was watching the rescue is this:
Notice the number of indigenous faces. And watching the coverage, it becomes obvious that this mining community is an indigenous community, as opposed to the President, his wife and the other officials:
This is not new in Central and South America. One would find that, in the agricultural sector, large agricultural producers and owners are descendants of Europeans (white) while the working class is made of larger numbers of indigenous peasants and workers. Race stratification is a pervasive traits of these societies. This case is no different.
Finally, one cannot help but be reminded of other miners on the same continent, in Bolivia, dramatically depicted in The Devil’s Miner: