OPINION: Mining in Colombia

News from Colombia | on: Tuesday, 19 October 2010

On October 13th Carlos Rodado, Colombia’s mining minister expressed his government’s congratulations to Chile for the successful rescue of the 33 trapped miners near Copiapo. This rescue was, he said, a demonstration of how technology should be used to save lives. How ironic then that on Saturday 16th the Colombian authorities suspended the attempt to rescue two miners trapped by a tunnel collapse on Tuesday 12th October.

The two miners, Hernan Alfonso Barrera and John Freddy Ordonez, were trapped some 60 metres underground, much nearer the surface than the 700 metres of solid rock that separated the Chilean miners from their rescuers. However rescuers felt that the attempt was too complicated and concluded that the two men would be dead from asphyxiation by the time they could be reached. The fate of these two unfortunates is indicative of the hypocrisy of the Colombian authorities, happy to wring their hands and pray for distant Chilean miners yet unwilling to move a muscle to improve the working conditions of those in their own country.

Indeed, on June 18th this year a massive explosion rocked the San Fernando coal mine in Antioquia province. Seventy three bodies were eventually recovered from the wreckage. A week earlier an inspection had revealed that the mine had no gas detectors and no ventilation tubes. Nor were there alternative tunnels out of the mine. Shockingly, under Colombian law there is no requirement for mines to be equipped with gas detectors at all. This completely preventable accident ought to have forced the resignation of the minister responsible, but in Colombia the story was quietly forgotten.

In the same week as Hernan Barrera and John Ordonez were buried alive, two of their fellow miners were killed – one in a gas explosion in a mine in Caldas province, the other in a rock slide in a mine in Boyaca. These were the latest in a steady stream of mining casualties in Colombia. Some die in accidents while working in small, informal sector mines, but many others are killed while working for transnational mining corporations where conditions ought to be far better.

It would be easy to dismiss such accidents as merely the result of Colombia’s underdevelopment, but a closer look shows the effective complicity of the government in this quotidian tragedy. Since 2002 the area of land given to mining concessions in Colombia has increased from 1.13 million hectares to a massive 8.53 million hectares. Not only do these concessions have catastrophic environmental consequences, they also have serious effects on Colombian miners and society more broadly. These effects are magnified by the Colombian government’s lax attitude towards enforcing existing protective labour and environmental provisions. This allows mining corporations to build roads wherever they like, destroy native forest cover, divert rivers away from agricultural lands and avoid social investment in schools or other infrastructure, as well as ensuring that Colombian miners work in atrocious conditions, for little pay and with no job security.

Most socially damaging is the Colombian state’s complicity in the repression of mining trade unions. Many mining sector workers are subcontractors, working for low wages, forbidden from joining unions and paid up to 70% less than permanent employees. Even permanent staff, although better paid are forced to work 12 hour shifts. Furthermore, according to Colombian Senator Jorge Robledo, the Colombian Labour Code does not recognise occupational illnesses such as silicosis, or the existence of injuries linked to work such as lumbago or vibration white finger. Thus, once disabled by such injuries, the workers are cast out and forced to fend for themselves.

Last year, when workers at a mine owned by the US multinational Drummond went on strike protesting the deaths of 16 of their comrades over the last 10 years, some 20 of them, all union activists, were fired by the company. The response of the Government was to vigorously support the company.

The trade unions are the only organisations to stand up for the rights of miners in Colombia. Despite daily threats from both government and paramilitary forces, and despite a hostile Labour Code, they have tried repeatedly to highlight perilous working conditions and ensure the government abides by its own rules. However, as in the Drummond case, their efforts are consistently met with outright hostility.

In September 2010, for example, the miners union Sintramienergentica organised a demonstration against the sale of a goldmine based in Antioquia province to the Canadian company Medoro Resources. The mine had been handed over to the miners that worked there after the previous owners declared themselves bankrupt in 2008 and were unable to pay the workers what they were owed. Selling the mine to Medoro, argued the union, would effectively rob the miners and their dependents of the money owed them by the previous owners.

The demonstration included the families of the miners, many women and children among them, who were settling down to a picnic when riot police appeared, charging the demonstrators and firing tear gas. The unprovoked assault led to 10 injuries and once again demonstrated the Colombian government’s preferential use of violence to resolve labour disputes.

On October 13th the Colombian government expressed its solidarity with the Chilean miners, but rather than empty expressions it would be far better for it to take action in solidarity with its own brutally exploited people.

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