Organizers of the strike at Chile’s Escondida copper mine have an acute sense of timing. The 24-hour stoppage which began on Wednesday morning (August 14) was ostensibly to ask for better pay and working conditions, and to demand an annual bonus which workers say is overdue, but the strike’s timing is likely to have a ripple effect across Chilean politics and justice, global metal prices, and the fortunes of one of the world’s biggest companies.
Mining makes up a significant portion of Chile’s economy, and Escondida – the world’s largest copper mine – is seen as especially important to the country’s economic welfare. Chile produces one-third of the world’s copper, and 20 percent of that – or more than one million tonnes per annum – is extracted from Escondida. The mine, situated in Chile’s northern Antofagasta region, is largely owned by Australian resources giant BHP Billiton and employs about 2,500 unionized workers.
A 2011 strike at Escondida lasted two weeks and raised international copper prices, and at the start of this year, Escondida’s workers successfully negotiated a new contract to offset rising fears of labor unrest at the mine. In around three months, Chile will go to the polls to elect a new president, and further industrial action could have a big effect on the process. Right now, copper prices are surging again after a 16 percent slump as Europe’s economy stabilizes and China shows signs of growth. Chilean officials will be keen to ensure that nothing happens to unsettle the market ahead of the elections.
But this is not a happy time for the mining fraternity. A week ago, on the third anniversary of the heroic rescue of 33 workers from the San Jose copper and gold mine, a court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to press charges against mine owners. In 2010 the world praised the fortitude of the men who were trapped underground for more than two months and condemned the safety violations which had caused the deaths of at least eight others in the preceding decade. In 2013, however, that seems like old news, and officially, no-one is to be held responsible for the cave-in.
Mario Sepulveda, a miner who became the voice of “Los 33” at the time of the disaster, told Associated Press recently the decision was “a disgrace to Chile’s justice system,” while Chilean Senator Isabel Allende said that “It is impossible that in an accident of this magnitude no-one is held responsible.”
The rescue of the San Jose miners in 2010 cost around $22 million. This is roughly the combined annual income of the top two or three executives at BHP, whose pay has risen dramatically in recent years. Workers are, perhaps unsurprisingly, paid appreciably less and their latest pay demands are unlikely to greatly impact the multi-billion dollar mining giant. On the BHP website, the company boasts that it operates a number of “large, low-cost mining operations — including the Escondida mine in Chile”
These are tricky times for BHP Billiton, however, as they are currently facing massive fines over alleged breaches of anti-corruption laws stemming back to their involvement in the Beijing Olympics.
Although miners returned to work after the brief strike, they have threatened to repeat their actions if demands are not met. Union leader Marcelo Tapia says that further meetings are scheduled with workers, and if the company fails to address their concerns, they will “decide whether to extend the protest or take another type of action.”