This week some 700 miners have come out on strike in Chile’s Collahuasi copper mine, nearly 2,000 kilometres north of Santiago and 5,000 metres up in the Andes. This is at a time when thousands of subcontracted workers in Chile’s state owned copper mines are already out.
Working high in the Andes is no fun. Pedro Marín, who is union secretary of Escondida, another big private mine in the north of Chile, described the results:
“The blood produces an excess of red blood cells, making it thicker. That, and the lack of oxygen, make your kidneys, heart and lungs work overtime. That produces kidney and heart problems.
“Also, travelling up and down to the mine from sea level can produce varicocele in the testicles, which causes sterility. And don’t forget the sub-zero temperatures and the radiation.”
The mine owners – the second biggest multinational in Chile – have rejected the miners’ demands for an 8 percent raise, and improved health and education benefits. They sent in the police as soon as the strike started.
In spite of this pressure, the strike began with a march down to Iquique, the regional capital on the coast. This brought to mind a famous protest march by striking nitrate workers in the city, during 1907, which was machine gunned by the authorities, killing upwards of 2,500. Pedro said, “nothing much has changed, the multinationals keep on exploiting the natural resources”.
Although relations between directly employed and subcontracted workers have not always been good, Pedro says that the union federation for the miners who work in private mines supports the striking subcontracted workers 100 percent.
He says that scenes of violence in the existing strike are due to the fact that strikers’ just demands have fallen on deaf ears and have been consciously postponed for a long time by all the authorities, who therefore all share the responsibility.
“Given the mining companies’ extraordinary profits, it is not justifiable to postpone yet again the demands of those workers who have contributed as much as – or even more than – the directly employed workers. We must put an end to this discrimination and unite to ensure that the subcontracted workers.”
“The Federation will use all its strength in support both direct and indirect workers because all the employers, without distinction, threaten workers who do not agree with their policies, with precarious working conditions and the subcontracting out of their work.”
Pedro Marín said that no distinctions should exist among Chile’s copper miners. The subcontracted workers are “skilled people, with the same dreams, capacities and hopes, as any other Chilean worker. So we don’t accept it when spokespeople for Codelco [the state owned copper corporation] say that the workers on strike aren’t important in the industry, only to avoid sitting down to negotiate.”
For the subcontractors' strike see » Subcontracted Chilean copper miners strike to demand ‘Same work, Same pay’