Socialist Worker

Crucial battle in Chile against global mine bosses

by Michael Stanton, in Santiago, Chile
Issue No. 2016

Miners resist their bosses

Miners resist their bosses

The Escondida opencast copper mine is the biggest in the world. The miners work in harsh conditions - at altitudes of 10,000 feet in the Atacama desert, north Chile.

It is 100 miles from the nearest city, Antofagasta, and over 1,000 miles from the capital, Santiago.

But it is crucial to world copper production - delivering 8 percent of the global supply of the mineral.

Hence the cries of horror from the financial press when miners there began a strike four weeks ago.

The two Anglo-Australian companies that control this huge wealth are BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto.

BHP, the biggest copper mining company in the world, made £5.5 billion profits in 2005-6. The Escondida mine alone produced £1.5 billion in the first six months of the year. Not bad!

The companies claim that the average wages for miners are about 1.5 million pesos a month, when the average wage in Chile is about 350,000 pesos a month.

What they don’t say, according to the union representing the miners, is that the average figure includes 550 supervisors, out of a workforce of about 4,000 people, and the bosses who take home between 35 and 55 million pesos a month.

The average miner’s wage is about one million pesos a month. This is not a bad wage by Chilean standards - if you don’t take into account working miles away from home and at 10,000 feet.

In this year’s negotiation, the high price of copper should have allowed Escondida to pay a decent increase. Growing demand, much of it from China, has led to bumper profits for copper producers.

The total wage bill for union members at the mine is 1 percent of the company’s projected profits for the year.

The union asked for a 13 percent rise and a bonus, reflecting the high price of copper. Management at Escondida offered a 3 percent rise and half the bonus.

But that’s not all, because the offer had strings attached, meaning the conversion of part of the wage rise into efficiency and safety bonuses.

With no conclusion to negotiations, miners voted to strike on 28 July.

Following the vote, the shift left the mine and along with the rest of the union marched into the city of Antofagasta to protest at the headquarters of the mine’s management. They created a camp in the company sports field.

As the strike got underway, production fell by two thirds. The company was counting on 2,000 subcontracted workers - some of whom were themselves on strike a few months ago - to keep the mine going.

But a picket of 500 striking miners blocked the entrance to the mine and fought battles with special police forces, while 300 more travelled to Santiago to protest at the use of the repression.

On another occasion, 800 miners occupied the port where the copper concentrate is filtered and shipped off to Japan, Germany, China and the rest of the world.

That confrontation forced the company to lay off the subcontactors and all negotiations ended. The government stepped in and tried to restart talks. The Chilean elite is worried that the Escondida dispute will encourage other copper miners to put in demands of their own.

The latest offer by the company was rejected by the union with a 98 percent vote.

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Sat 2 Sep 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2016
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