Will the miracle rescue change things?

Lana Payne
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Los 33. Now found. The rescue this month of 33 Chilean miners captured the world’s attention. Millions watched, moved to tears, as the miners came to the surface one by one after 70 days trapped underground. We watched as they hugged their families. We watched and we rejoiced.

Their story was one of courage, faith and hope. Humanity and solidarity triumphed.

Across the planet, hours after their spellbinding rescue, 37 Chinese miners perished during a gas explosion at the coal mine where they worked. A staggering 2,600 Chinese miners died on the job in 2009 compared to an even more shocking 7,000 in 2002.

Globally, many mining fatalities go unrecorded, according to the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Union (ICEM). The federation of trade unions says about 12,000 workers lose their lives in recorded mining accidents each year. They suspect the number is much higher, especially in countries like China.

While China has one of the worst safety records with respect to mining, many other countries — including Chile, Canada and Australia  —have failed to sign the 1995 International Labour Organization’s Safety and Health in Mines Convention, which outlines core health and safety standards for mines and the inspection of them.

In our own province, despite huge advances made by unions in health and safety in the mining sector, workers are still dying, mostly from occupational disease.

The rescue of the Chilean miners also shone a spotlight on the global mining industry. It exposed the precarious, perilous and dangerous working conditions, and not just in Chilean mines.

The question is will this incident, this rescue that some are calling a miracle, serve as the impetus to improve mine safety and working conditions for miners in Chile and around the world?

We know unionization is critical to improving health and safety in mines. The evidence is overwhelming. We know government regulation, strong laws, enforcement and inspections are also critically important to mine safety — the very things unions fight for.

It’s simple. Unions, supported by strong labour laws, make a difference when they bargain collectively and protect the rights of miners.

The way to save lives is through strong labour laws and improved mining laws. But the resistance around the globe from mining companies and their government friends has been fierce.

For example, the smiling, billionaire president of Chile who hugged each miner as he emerged from the “phoenix” is not known for his dedication to workers’ rights and safety laws. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In our own province, despite huge advances made by unions in health and safety in the mining sector, workers are still dying, mostly from occupational disease.

The story of Los 33 was also one of corporate greed triumphing over worker safety.

It is a story of government deregulation and indifference.

It reminded us that workers have so much more at stake when they go underground, when they work offshore, when they go to work to earn a decent living for themselves and their families in any of the numerous dangerous professions in society. They risk life, limb and occupational disease. 

The mine owners merely risk fewer profits.

Many of these companies are big and wealthy. They are powerful.

Struggles at home

Look at our province. The Brazilian-based Vale is the second largest mining corporation on the planet. Their war with the union representing workers at Voisey’s Bay, Labrador is about more than money. It is about trying to weaken the union and send a message to its global workforce, to temper their expectations. It is a struggle as old as time — between workers’ rights and profits.

One of the Chilean miners reportedly told his family while he was trapped underground that if he didn’t make it out “to remember your rights.” Rights like decent wages and safe working conditions.

These rights that we should all enjoy are never given, never handed over by the powerful. They are mostly always taken through some form of resistance and sometimes they are taken because someone had to die.

Perhaps this Chilean miracle will result in improved rights and working conditions for the miners of Chile and the world. That is the bigger hope.

Cesar Chavez, the former charismatic leader of the farm workers union in the United States, said: "Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”

Vale’s anti-union tactics in Labrador, including lawsuits, have all been about creating fear. It can use its wealth to try to crush the spirit of the striking workers. It can use scabs to provoke. It can try to break their solidarity with those lawsuits and fear tactics. But in the end, like Chavez said, you cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.

Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by e-mail at lanapayne@nl.rogers.com. Her column returns Nov. 4.

Organizations: International Federation of Chemical, ICEM, International Labour Organization Mines Convention Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Chile, China.While China, Canada Australia Labrador United States

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