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Chile: after the rescue, the test

The meticulous operation that rescued Chile's trapped miners after two months underground highlights the country's economic problems as well as its professional and human assets. This makes its longer-term impact on Chile less than certain, says Carlos Huneeus in Santiago.
Carlos Huneeus
20 October 2010

I have been asked to write about the possible impact on Chilean society of the accident that trapped thirty-three miners in Chile deep underground, their two-month ordeal, and successful rescue. This is not easy to predict; it was, after all, a spectacular event, heightened by intense media (particularly television) coverage, and emotions are still very much to the fore.

Much of the commentary on the event in both the local and international press has focused on three themes: the remarkable work of the professionals and technicians involved in the rescue operation, President Sebastián Piñera’s commitment from the very start to retrieving the miners from the depths of the earth, and Chile’s revived  international image as a country that does things well. At the same time, politicians on both government and opposition sides are calculating the possible effect of the drama on the president’s popularity and assessing how he might take political advantage of the achievement.

The shadow of progress

It is welcome that the incident has shown that Chileans (can) “do things well” and revealed the high level of development of one sector of the country. But the episode has also drawn the attention of Chileans and the rest of the world alike to important weaknesses in our economic model. The overall lesson is that for Chile to attain the status of a developed country, it still has at least two serious problems to solve.

Firstly, the rescue of the miners was possible because Chile has excellent professionals trained in its own universities. Their work will probably trigger increased interest among young people in studying subjects related to mining. This has, perhaps surprisingly, not been the case until now. The mining industry, even though it is the largest single source of national income in the country, is little valued; more attention is paid to “non-traditional” export activities in the agricultural, fishing, forestry and services sectors. A by-product of the rescue will surely be to encourage Chileans to pay more attention to this source of wealth and work.

Secondly, the professionals who provided the backbone of the rescue operation were employed by in Codelco, the world’s largest state-owned copper producer, which makes an enormous contribution to fiscal revenues. Yet they had to work almost blindfold because the owners of the mine where the accident happened did not even have updated plans of its galleries. Their accomplishment in such circumstances is also to demonstrate that a state company can have as high standards as any private one - a timely and powerful message to those elements in Chile’s economic and political elite who believe that state enterprises are inherently inefficient and that Codelco should be privatised. Chilean society will attach a greater value to Codelco as a result of this experience.

The accident which trapped the miners 700 metres below the surface occurred in the San José mine, a medium-sized mine owned by local businessmen where safety standards were very poor. It revealed the precarious conditions that workers face in small and middling mines and the risks to their lives that their everyday work can entail. There had been previous fatal accidents in the San José mine, but the company had not taken action to remedy the causes nor did the authorities enforce this obligation. This is evidence that “self-regulation” (promoted by advocates of the neo-liberal model) does not suffice, and that it is vital to exercise effective control of safety norms and severely punish those who infringe them. 

The accident, in short, exposed some of the shadows of Chile’s much-vaunted “economic miracle”: poor working conditions, low wages, and a lack of care for workers’ rights on the part of businesses and the government. The other side of this coin is that trade-union membership is extremely (and shamefully) low in Chile by international standards. In 1990, even after seventeen years of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, 19.2% of the workforce belonged to a union, a figure that declined to 14.5% in 2006, a level at which it has since held steady.

The percentage of workers who engage in collective bargaining is also very low; only 10.1% of the workforce used this mechanism in 1991, but the proportion dropped further to 5.4% in 2005 (lower even than in the United States or the United Kingdom, countries with more “liberal” labour laws than the democracies of continental Europe). This is one of the outcomes of a long-term growth strategy in Chile that, including under the centre-left presidencies of Ricardo Lagos (2000-06) and Michelle Bachelet (2006-10), has put business interests first.

The value in question

If the government really wants to learn from the mining accident and rescue, it should seek to enact legislative reforms that correct these enormous imbalances. They will involve not merely improving workplace safety but also correcting inequalities in economic and political rights in order to achieve a better balance in our society and political system. There is no one better placed to undertake this task than a right-wing government, led by a president who was formerly a successful businessman. President Piñera’s key challenge is here.

More generally, how will we react as Chileans in the aftermath of this event? I am not optimistic. The remarkable responsibility and solidarity of the miners in the San José accident demonstrated what workers are capable of in difficult situations; and these qualities were matched by their rescuers. But this must be set against the fact that we are a mistrustful society (among the most mistrustful in the world, according to the World Values Survey), and tend to behave individualistically in a way typical of a traditional society. When a catastrophe occurs, we temporarily break out of that mould and show solidarity with others - though this is soon buried again beneath a heavy mantle of mistrust. But, perhaps, this is the event that will at last produce a change in values.

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