Last week Chile's recently elected rightwing president, Sebastián Piñera, visited Europe to revel in the glow of genuine global delight at last week's dramatic rescue of the 33 miners trapped in the San José mine in northern Chile. While more than 2,000 journalists reportedly flocked to "Camp Hope" in Chile to cover a story that became a global media event, Piñera's European tour also received ample coverage. For example we learnt how in highly publicized meetings with British prime minister David Cameron and the Queen, Piñera presented them each with a lump of rock taken out of the San José mine by the rescued miners.
However, in both the media's coverage of both the miners’ plight in Chile and of Piñera's UK visit, there has been little attempt to probe into why the accident occurred in the first place or to look at the wider context in which it happened.
Had they dug deeper the media would have uncovered that the miners should never have been trapped in the first place. According to Chile's mining safety regulations, each mine in operation should have at least two main routes to the surface; at the San José mine there was only one. This flouting of Chilean law has no doubt contributed to the 373 fatal mining accidents in Chile in the last decade, with 31 alone this year.
But the government is also to blame. Only 16 government safety inspectors oversee the more than 4,500 mines in Chile. And the government has yet to ratify International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 176 on Safety and Health in Mines.
This disregard for safety standards is also reflected in the statistics for work-place accidents. In 2009 there were 191,000 workplace accidents, including 443 deaths; there have been 155 deaths in the first three months of this year alone - in a country of around 17 million people.
It is within this context that Néstor Jorquera, president of the federation of mining unions, CONFEMIN, which represents 18,000 Chilean miners, including the 33 miners at the San José mine, suggested that instead of calling the 33 miners heroes for surviving their ordeal, it was more appropriate to call them victims.
However, the miners are merely the latest victims of the "profit over people" logic driving Chile's neoliberal economic model, first imposed under the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. Lamentably, the Concertación, the centre-left coalition that governed Chile from the end of the dictatorship and the return of democracy in 1990 until March this year, while attempting to moderate the harsh social impact of the model, largely continued its economic agenda. This agenda was centred on exporting primary goods, with mineral (primarily copper) exports accounting for around 60 per cent of Chile's foreign earnings.
Under Pinochet, Chile's mining sector, which had been nationalized in 1972 under the Salvador Allende government, was opened to foreign investment. CODELCO, the state-owned copper mining company, now controls only 30 per cent of the county's copper production; foreign companies account for most of the rest.
In 2006 alone, these foreign mining companies earned around US$20 billion, which not only exceeds their gross investment in mining in Chile during the past 30 years, but equates to about 60 per cent of the government's budget for that year. Australian mining companies, which have a significant presence in Chile's mining sectors, have been at the forefront of reaping these windfall profits. For example, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto own 57.5 per cent and 30 per cent respectively in the world's largest copper mine, Escondida, located in northern Chile. The super-profits contrast sharply with the wage of around US$1000 the 33 miners who were entombed at the San José mine took home every month. In a country where you pay for education, health and a range of other basic services, US$1000 does not get you very far at all. And the San José were paid around 20 per cent more than colleagues at other Chilean mines, due to the mines poor safety record.
For his part, while the international media's attention was fixed on Chile and throughout his European tour, Piñera has skillfully and systematically attempted to distance himself and Chile's image from Pinochet. This is understandable, as he and the political coalition he brought into power have strong ties to the dictatorship. For example Piñera's fortune, estimated at more than US$1 billion, was amassed during the dictatorship, when his brother and former business partner, José Piñera, a labour minister under Pinochet, was the one who reformed the mining law, opening the mineral sector to private investment. José Piñera was also responsible for the radical deregulation of labour laws, which set back a long history of gains by Chile's trade unions and workers.
Despite these sobering facts, it is still important to welcome the repeated public commitments Piñera has given in the aftermath of the miners’ rescue in relation to addressing the lack of health and safety provisions for Chilean workers.
However, it is also important that when the media frenzy dies down and the dust has settled, journalists return to Chile to investigate whether Piñera's rhetoric has been translated into deeds. A failure to do so would be a disservice to the memory of the hundreds of miners and other Chilean workers whose death never captured the media's attention.