How the Miners Have Won Respect for Chile's Workers

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Jose Manuel de la Maza / Reuters

The 33 rescued miners pose with Chilean President Sebastin Pinera. The miners' leader, Luis Urzua, is standing at the rear left

It was a sublime civic image: Luis Urzúa, the leader of the 33 Chilean miners trapped 2,050 ft. (625 m) underground and the last among them to emerge Wednesday night, Oct. 13, conferring with President Sebastián Piñera after stepping out of the rescue capsule. "I've delivered to you this shift of workers, as we agreed I would," said Urzúa, an avuncular foreman who judiciously rationed his men's food during their 70 days in the abyss. Said the President, who had greeted each miner since the flawless rescue operation began the night before: "I gladly receive your shift, because you completed your duty, leaving last like a good captain. You are not the same after this, and Chile won't be the same either."

That moment may have changed Chile more profoundly than either man imagined. Chile, which is celebrating its bicentennial this year, is perhaps Latin America's most developed country — a former colonial outpost that has made itself an efficient export powerhouse, a once sinister dictatorship that has morphed into a remarkably stable democracy — and it loves to celebrate its tycoons, the billionaire Piñera among them.

But a big reason the country hasn't yet made the first-world club is its incorrigibly lousy treatment of workers like Urzúa, exemplified by the unsafe conditions of so many of the mines that are the mainstay of Chile's economy. Before the rescue drama that gripped the world, Chile rarely if ever regarded laborers as heroes. Now, the country has watched the 54-year-old Urzúa standing alongside Piñera not as a humble mine-crew foreman but as the nation's new icon of leadership, the man who held things together below while Piñera arranged their escape from above.

As a result, it was little surprise Thursday morning when Piñera, after visiting the miners at the Copiapó hospital where they're under medical observation, announced plans for sweeping labor reforms to better protect, pay and otherwise "dignify" Chilean workers. "We have to adopt the [labor] standards of the developed world if Chile wants to be a truly developed country," he declared in a message directed squarely at the nation's business owners. "Our principal wealth isn't copper, it's the miners ... and realizing that will make us a lot more productive and efficient at the same time."

Chilean workers actually receive Latin America's fourth highest minimum wage, about $300 per month. But that's not saying a lot, given the continent's generally dismal pay and its epic gap between rich and poor. Chile's higher state of development means it also has a higher cost of living, and labor experts say Chilean workers need 60% more earning power to afford it. Their inability to buy many of Chile's most important products, from wine to fruit to furniture, is one reason (along with its relatively small population) that Chile exports almost half its GDP. Chile's working class also has a high rate of stomach cancer, which doctors attribute in no small part to a lack of vegetables — another main export — in their diet.

What's more, for a country with Chile's first-world ambitions, one would expect more commitment to education and worker training. But a study last year by researchers at the Universidad Católica in Santiago instead cited a pervasive "paternalistic distrust" among Chilean employers of the ability of workers to better themselves in their "capacities to make decisions on their own. It becomes a justification to keep wages low." Only 10% of Chile's workforce is unionized.

The bigger concern by far is worker safety. Mining, especially of copper, accounts for half of Chile's exports. But there are only 16 safety auditors for the country's more than 4,500 mines — and just three for the almost 900 mines in the northern Atacama region, where the San José gold and copper mine collapsed on Aug. 5 in the desert outside Copiapó, forcing Urzúa and his 32 workmates into a 538-sq.-ft. (50 sq m) emergency shelter almost half a mile below the earth. Chronic accidents at the mine, which is run by the San Esteban company, have caused three deaths and scores of serious injuries over the past six years, a period in which the company received 42 safety-related fines. Piñera, who before becoming President wasn't exactly known as a labor crusader, made a point of mentioning that dubious record after the first miner was brought up to the surface early Wednesday morning.

Shortly after the August collapse, Piñera fired three federal mine-safety regulators and created a new Commission for Worker Safety, which is supposed to deliver major new reform recommendations by December. On Thursday, Piñera pledged to triple the budget for mining inspection and "encourage workers to raise their voices about these issues." He also promised a "full investigation" and "an end to impunity" for mining magnates like San Esteban's owner, Alejandro Bohn, who is claiming bankruptcy even though a judge has ruled he has almost $2 million on hand with which to aid the 33 miners and their families. Pressure is on Piñera to make Bohn pick up a big slice of the almost $20 million cost of the rescue.

Bohn denies his company's culpability — even though Urzúa reported to Piñera that federally mandated ladders for escape shafts were nowhere to be found when San José imploded, forcing the miners instead into the shelter. "Please make sure this never happens again," Urzúa told Piñera Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, the popular cheer that greeted each miner as he emerged — "Chi-chi-chi/ Le-le-le/ Los mineros de Chile!" (Miners of Chile!) — is sure to raise the cachet of their profession, much as the courageous efforts of U.S. firefighters during 9/11 did for theirs. It may also bring the overweening prestige of Chilean industrialists like Bohn down a healthy notch. Responding to criticism, Bohn said at one point during the San José ordeal that "now is not the time to point fingers." But it is indeed time to do so, as no less a captain than Piñera has made clear.