Min menu


Chilean miners on indefinite strike

 Chilean miners on indefinite strike

In their two-week strike, Chilean mine workers face a bitter fight against Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton, amid a surge in infections and deaths from COVID-19.

They must not only face giant companies which, driven by historically high copper prices, are rushing to revive mining activity on a large scale, whatever the human cost. They also come into conflict with the corporate unions who, during the pandemic, once again demonstrated their submission and loyalty to business and government by helping to keep the mining industry going.

With the campaign to reopen the world economy, copper hit its highest price in ten years. China is leading the demand for the metal and Washington is promising an infrastructure plan of two trillion US dollars. Supply shortages also played a role, as reduced production due to COVID-19 reduced international stocks.

S&P predicts that total copper consumption will be more than double the current global production of 20 million tonnes. “Beyond 2020, we predict that consumption will exceed production over the period up to 2024, which will lead to a growing refining market deficit and higher copper prices,” said Thomas Rutland, analyst of commodities at S&P.

"We estimate that by the middle of the decade, this growth in green demand will only match the additional demand that China generated in the 2000s, and then quickly exceed it." Goldman Sachs said in a copper report released in April: “Ripple effects in non-green sectors mean that the 2020s are expected to be the strongest phase of volume growth in global copper demand in history. ".

All the major players that privately own 71 percent of the copper mines and 100 percent of the lithium mines in Chile - BHP Billiton, SQM, Albemarle, Anglo American, KGHM International, Glencore, Freeport-McMoRan, Teck, Antofagasta Minerals - rub their hands in front of the windfall of dividends that this will bring to the shareholders and prepare to face the working class.

The struggle has already started with BHP using scabs to continue production. This is allowed in Chile because pro-employer labor laws allow the replacement of contract workers by the client company, thus nullifying the supposed “right to strike”. These laws were passed in Congress with the complicity of the parliamentary left.

The union timidly registered a complaint against this provocation with Chilean labor courts favorable to employers. "The company is hiring replacement workers at mines in northern Chile to ensure continued production," Robert Robles, secretary of the BHP specialists and supervisors union, told Reuters. “Complaints have been filed with the Labor Directorate for violation of the right to strike and anti-union practices”.

On May 27, 2021, contract workers who remotely run the Integral Operations Center (COI) of the Escondida and Spence mines from Santiago, 1,400 km away, went on indefinite strike for the first time since creation of the union in 2019.

Chilean miners on indefinite strike
BHP's Escondida mine (source: BHP)

Remote workers are mainly highly skilled people laid off from BHP's Escondida mine (which last year produced 1.19 million tonnes of copper, more than any other individual mine in the world) as well as from the mine BHP Spence, smaller. They were then immediately outsourced to a sister company, “BHP CHILI” on the basis of individual contracts with lower wages and benefits when the full operations center was inaugurated two years ago.

As an IOC worker recently explained, 'We operate remotely (from Santiago) the entire value chain, from mining the ore to shipping. We are control room specialists who cover all the bases. In addition, we have people working in technology, people working in technology support, people in long and short term planning, strategic planning, projects ... '

The IOC strike was followed on May 31 by a vote of 1,100 workers on site at the Spence mine in the Antofagasta region in favor of a strike. A larger group of workers at the Escondida mine site, located in the same region, are due to go on strike later in June.

A massive transformation is underway in the international mining sector, linked to the implementation of automation and remote operating systems. The process began with the relocation of business functions, operational planning and analytical functions off-site. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this process to include the development of remote fieldwork with the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning technology.

An Accenture Chile mining industry analyst explains that “before the pandemic, field workers were 100 percent on site. During the first quarantines, this presence dropped to 60 percent and is now between 70 and 80 percent. As for office workers, before the pandemic, on-site work represented 90 percent. During the first quarantines, this percentage fell to 5-10 percent and is currently between 30 and 40 percent. "

With an annual production of some 5.7 million tonnes, Chile accounts for 28 percent of the world's copper supply. The industry as a whole accounts for 10 percent of Chile's GDP and 52 percent of its exports. The largest mining consortia have made billions of dollars in profits as the country steadily lost market share. The state-owned Codelco and many private mines, which have been in operation for decades, require huge investments to cope with aging infrastructure, declining ore grades and increasing operating costs as they grow. they go deeper into the earth.

Chilean miners on indefinite strike
Map of mines in Chile (source: Consejo Minero Chile)

What pushes for the "modernization" of labor relations and the increase in flexibility is therefore the reduction of production costs by removing all obstacles to the exploitation of labor.

The latest government report says the current workforce is larger than before the pandemic. Of the 250,000 workers employed in the mining sector before the pandemic, 40,000 jobs have been destroyed in the months following March 2020. Since June of last year, when the second wave hit mining regions particularly hard, the trend has shifted. is reversed and as of March 31 of this year, 260,000 people were working in the mining industry.

What these numbers don't show is that the majority of this workforce is hired from subcontractors or on individual contracts, as are COI employees. The proportion of personnel directly employed by the mining industry has been declining for more than four decades. In the early 2000s, only 39 percent of the workforce was directly employed, falling to just 27 percent in 2019. This trend has only accelerated since the pandemic.

Large mining companies have argued that the quest for efficiency and increased productivity by automating fieldwork and machine operation was driven by safety concerns. This is belied by the fact that they conspired, with the help of the right-wing government, parliamentary lefts and unions, to keep the mining industry operational during the pandemic.

In the northern regions of Tarapacá, Antofagasta and Atacama, where most of Chile's mining sites are located (see map), the total of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 infections has reached 126,300 cases; there were 2,375 deaths there at the end of last month. This carnage does not even take into account the thousands of disabilities suffered by Chilean miners due to appalling accidents which, over the past 20 years, have claimed the lives of 581 workers.

A March 31 editorial in the Tiempo Minero of the Peruvian Mining Council estimated the number of miners dead from COVID-19 in several Latin American countries, revealing the same contempt for the lives of workers everywhere: 120 in Ecuador, 299 in Brazil, 55 in Peru, 18 in Chile, 35 in Argentina.

The responsibility lies entirely with the parliamentary left, the Communist Party, the Frente Amplio and the corporate unions which, for decades since the return to civilian power, have maintained tripartite arrangements, working simultaneously with corporate and coalition governments of center-left, just as they do today with the right-wing presidency of Sebastian Piñera.

Not only did they support the continued operation of the non-essential, but highly profitable mining industry, they passed laws making it easier to suspend hundreds of thousands of contracts, forcing workers to start their unemployment insurance under the "law. employment protection ”. They implemented “electronic settlements” allowing massive layoffs without workers having the right to lodge complaints and agreed to postpone collective bargaining.

They signed a national unity pact with the Piñera government amid massive anti-capitalist protests at the end of 2019 - out of which came an agreement to hold a plebiscite and elections for the writing of a new constitution - seeking to chain the workers to parliamentarism and to stifle the class struggle. Other populist measures, such as a mining royalty bill which is unlikely to see the light of day, have been sought for the same purpose.

The class struggle has reappeared among a historically important section of Chilean workers. It is part of a wave of strikes and a radicalization of the working class on a global scale, the objective meaning of which is the struggle to save lives and livelihoods in the face of a crisis created by the capitalist and which the pandemic has come to light.

The working class can only advance this fight by breaking with the nationalist and opportunist unions and the falsely left-wing capitalist parties, and by developing new organs of struggle.

It is for this purpose that the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), which publishes the World Socialist Web Site, initiated the construction of the International Workers' Alliance of Grassroots Committees.

I have ambitions and goals in my life, and I am now trying to achieve them calmly, as the name also came on my channel and website.