By ANTHONY PAHNKE and MARK N. HOFFMAN
The 10-week-long captivity-turned-spectacle of 33 Chilean miners has seized the attention of audiences from Asia, to Latin America, to the United States. “It was reality TV at its best,” proclaimed one CNN reporter. Another observed that, “overall, people feel really connected to this story.”
As caring cosmopolitans, we ought to feel connected. Global media outlets have promoted this feeling by offering narratives of cosmopolitan solidarity and hope. You’ve likely been moved by the “perseverance” and “courage” of the miners and their families as well as the “heroism” and “determination” of the international team of rescuers. If you are American, Swiss, or German, you might have taken pride in knowing that many of the rescuers and rescue technologies came from your country.
If you read these stories carefully, however, you will find hints of a darker reality that remains, literally and figuratively, buried underground.
For instance, you will find statements expressing ongoing frustration about working and safety conditions, including at least one miner’s observation, now corroborated, that San Jose’s owner consistently violated national and international safety codes. Other statements, along with moving stories about the miners’ lives, reveal more general hardships and dangers associated with the low-cost extraction and worldwide distribution of valuable raw materials from the bowels of the earth.
Excavating a Systemic Problem
Empresa Minera San Esteban, the owner of San Jose, is not an outlying offender. Nor are the “small mining companies” that Pinera, the Chilean President, cited as culpable parties. Labor organizations have highlighted the extent to which unsafe conditions in mines are an industry-wide effect of intense competition. As the global market price of raw materials decreases, the quest for cheaper labor and lower production costs intensifies. In deference to mining companies’ profit-seeing prerogatives, governments cripple labor union organization and neglect regulatory responsibilities.
It is worth mentioning that the feel-good connections marketed by reality-TV depend upon an utterly fortuitous circumstance: the San Jose mine collapsed in a way that allowed the miners to survive for weeks until the rescue drill arrived. Since coal mining emerged as the engine of industrialization centuries ago, most miners in similar situations have not been so lucky. Recent fatal disasters from China to Appalachia should remind us of mining’s mortal dangers. Twenty-nine miners were buried in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch coal mine collapse earlier this April. Just two days after the heroic rescue in Chile, a gold mine in Ecuador collapsed, trapping four miners.
Repeated fatal mine disasters indicate an international-historical context of less-than-human connections: profit-seeking superexploitation, patterns of life-threatening working conditions, and uneven exchanges.
The San Jose mine is one example, one site, among countless others. Highly profitable, cost-reducing neglect and labor union subordination functions as a powerful market force. It draws extractors of raw materials to sites like San Jose all over the world.
Like its competitors, Empresa Minera San Esteban lowers production costs by taking advantage this neglect: they build structurally unsound shafts without escape routes and hire older miners whom larger companies have refused to employ and who are willing to risk their lives in exchange for the opportunity to work. Driven in part by the global demand for cheaper minerals and fuels, including our own need for drinking water (copper pipes) and heat (coal), mining companies seek ways to extract raw materials more and more cheaply.
The profitable precariousness built into San Jose recalls a largely abandoned narrative of global connections developed by theorists of underdevelopment and “dependency.” According to this narrative, imperialist expansion produced a division of labor in which elites could systematically exploit the inhabitants of peripheral spaces in order to extract raw materials for sale to manufacturers in the world’s industrial “core.” Coffee, sugar, minerals, and fossil fuels connect producers and consumers not as free-traders, but as hierarchically organized subjects.
Blood for Coal and Copper: The Darker Side of the Neoliberal Revolution
Stories of historical dependency unsettle the narratives of high-tech heroism at San Jose. Take, for instance, the roles of Layne Christensen Company and its affiliate, Geotec Boyles Brothers, the U.S.-based companies praised for the successful made-for-TV “Plan B” rescue operation. These international heroes were drawn to Chile by the very same profitable neglect of workers’ well being that led to the collapse of the San Jose mine.
Christensen and Boyles Brothers expanded their operations in Mexico and South America in the 1970s to take advantage of Latin America’s emerging mining “boom.” In Chile, democratically elected President Salvador Allende attempted to regulate this explosion by nationalizing the mining industry in 1970, protecting his country’s workforce from the worst forms of corporate exploitation. The move forced Boyles Brothers to leave the country. When Allende died in the CIA-sponsored military coup of 1973, however, his authoritarian successor, General Augusto Pinochet, re-privatized the industry and successfully encouraged companies like Christensen and Boyles to re-invest.
Envisioning opportunity in authoritarian Chile, Christensen bought a majority share in Boyles Brothers in 1975. As the company put it, the merge was “a perfect marriage between the manufacturer and the contractor.” The relationship solidified connections between the manufacturing core (Christensen) and peripheral practices of “testing” and deregulated exploitation of people and resources (Boyles and Latin American mining companies). Specializing in sophisticated mining equipment for the extraction of minerals, Layne Christiansen has now expanded its lucrative connections with affiliates all over Latin American and Africa.
As in most other countries during the neoliberal revolution, privatization and deregulation became standard practice in post-coup Chile. In addition to the weakening of labor union power and the correlative neglect of safety standards, the privatization of social security in 1980 prevented Chilean workers from retiring. The aging workforce at San Jose is in many ways a legacy of the dictator’s adherence to global, neoliberal principles.
We are all connected to Chile as subjects of this neoliberal order. The copper in your drinking-water pipes is a product of the deregulated extraction of raw materials. Pinochet’s violent seizure of power and the deregulation that followed facilitated these profitably unsafe practices. For much of Chile’s history, the country depended on cheap copper exports to fuel its economy. Thus, our connection to Chilean miners, like our connection to coal miners in Appalachia, is one of dependence. Historical neglect of miners’ safety helps companies produce the cheap goods that we enjoy. From pipes to energy, the disastrous events in Chile and West Virginia are closer to home than reality-TV would make us believe.
Anthony Pahnke is an affiliated researcher with UNESP (Universidade Estadual Paulista/Brazil) currently residing in Brazil and completing his doctoral research on agrarian politics.
Here is a great article written by Allison Kilkenny titled, Capitalism didn’t save the miners, in response to an article published by the WSJ. Enjoy.
The WSJ published a ridiculous article yesterday that claims Capitalism saved the Chilean miners, and opens with a boldface lie when writer Daniel Henninger proclaims, “It needs to be said.” Does it, Daniel? Does it really?
Henninger believes the rescue of the miners is a smashing success for free market Capitalism because without that nifty drill bit, which was the only tool capable of freeing the workers, those blue-collar suckers would still be trapped in the belly of the earth with Satan and his fiery army. You see, the drill bit was developed by a company for a profit, which obviously means regulation and anything else that stands in the way of the righteous free market, is killing Chilean miners. Or something.
In reality, Capitalism helped contribute to the mine disaster. That is, hyper-Capitalism, the most warped version of Capitalism, which sacrifices regulation in the name of profit, led to mine disasters that culminated with 33 men being trapped deep below ground in darkness for 69 days.
Dick Blin, a spokesman for the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions in Geneva, says the Chile accident is a sign that the workplace safety culture needs to change in Chile. As proof, Blin cites the fact that the San Jose Mine was closed down for safety violations in 2006 and 2007.
Chilean safety officials pointed out at the time that the mine needed a second entrance, so that miners would have another way out in case of disaster.
The mining company resumed operations without making necessary changes. The mayor of the nearby town of Caldera, Brunilda Gonzalez, has alleged that regulators were bribed to allow the mine to re-open.
The BBC reported earlier this month that the San Jose mine has been sued by members of the miners’ families. The familes are also suing Sernageomin, the state regulator of mines, for allowing the company to reopen in 2008 following its closure a year earlier over a death. But this kind of safety lapse is par for the course in Chile.
In 2007 and 2008, at the height of the boom in copper prices, there were more deaths in Chilean mines than in any other years during the decade. In 2007, when the copper price averaged a record $3.24 per lb, 40 miners died in accidents. In 2008, when copper was at $2.88 per lb, the death toll hit 43. The average for the decade was 34.
In contrast, the safest year in the history of Chilean mining was 1999, when the average copper price fell to just 72 cents, its lowest level in over 10 years, a consequence of the Asian crisis.
Even when the free market was flush with cash because of the copper boom, Chilean miners continued to die. In fact, as the value of copper spiked, more workers started dying during the rush. There appears to be an almost direct correlation between the pace of production and worker safety. (Overall, there have been less deaths in the copper mining industry since the 1980s, but again that is because of internal safety standards, and not because of the glories of the free market).
The reasons behind the correlation seem fairly obvious. Yet, for whatever reason, some people are mystified.
“It shouldn’t be the case that when the price rises, the number of accidents rises too,” said Andy King, national co-ordinator for health and safety at the massive North American trade union, United Steelworkers.
“In fact, the opposite should be the case,” said Mr King, who visited the San Jose mine last month and has been deeply critical of safety standards at Chilean mines. “The higher the price of the metal, the safer the mine should be, because the company has more funds to improve safety.”
Oh, Andy. You sweet thing. Why would they spend more money on safety regulations when they can shove the extra cash in their own coffers? Mining companies don’t like closing down operations to tend to meddlesome safety standards because they lose money. Frankly, it’s less expensive to cross the occasional worker off the company picnic list than totally revamp a dilapidated mine.
That was Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s reasoning while overseeing a corporation built on criminal neglect. Blankenship thumbed his nose at regulators – not out of some weird disdain for proper ventilation – but because he resents big government ordering him to spend money to improve safety standards so his employees won’t die. Blankenship, a die-hard fan of free market Capitalism, scoffed at efforts to regulate the mining industry, calling such attempts “as silly as global warming.”
In 2009, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine for 495 violations and proposed $911,802 in fines. Since 1984, the mine had been cited for 600 violations in less than a year and a half, some of them for not properly ventilating methane, the same combustible gas suspected in the explosion, according to the AP. The disaster at Upper Big Branch was the worst of its kind in 40 years.
When Shift Foreman Luis Urzua, the last worker out of the San Jose mine, embraced Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera, he didn’t rejoice about the glories of the free market. Instead, he said, “I hope this will never happen again.” Pinera now says he’s going to review safety conditions so that “never again in Chile would people be allowed to work in such inhumane conditions,” and confesses the San Jose mine has a “long history” of accidents.
Now, four more miners are trapped underground in a mine in southern Ecuador after a cave-in early this morning. Maybe the WSJ can publish another article about why Wall Street should hand out more bonuses since the free market saved the day again.