x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Anger of Chile's forgotten miners

Plight of about 300 waiting to be paid is lost amid fanfare for the 33 rescued from a pit in Copiapo.

Edison Pena, centre, competes in the New York Marathon.
Edison Pena, centre, competes in the New York Marathon.

SANTIAGO // Impersonating Elvis in front of a live television audience was probably the last thing on Edison Pena's mind as he waited to be pulled from the depths of the Chilean mine where he was trapped for 69 days.

Yet, there he was swivelling his hips and singing the King's Suspicious Minds during his appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman this month, just 23 days after he became the 12th of the 33 now-famous miners to be rescued from 700 metres below the Atacama desert.

Mr Pena, 34, was known as "the runner" during his ordeal in the mine for his routine of jogging up to eight kilometres each day in his work boots. He accepted an invitation from organisers of the New York City Marathon and finished the race last week in under six hours despite pain in his knee.

"It was worthwhile for me to come this far to run a marathon because I want to motivate people," Mr Pena told reporters in New York. "I want to convince them that they can do what they set out to do in life."

Those who followed their rescue are wasting no time cashing in. Books are being written by both Chilean and foreign authors, while documentaries, television movies and a trailer for a film, The 33 of San Jose, are being produced.

The town of Copiapo has also seen a boost to its tourism industry, as curious Chileans visit to see one of three rescue capsules, dubbed Fenix.

"Before the 33 miners not many people come to Copiapo," said Mauricio Gallargo, 34, who lives in the nearby beach-resort town of La Serena. "Now Copiapo is a centre; many people are interested to know it."

The death last week of two men in a mine not far from the site of the famous rescue offered a reminder of the dangers of working underground. The incident will likely brighten the spotlight turned on Chile's mining safety standards. The government has promised a review of safety standards and said it would ratify International Labor Organisation Convention 176 that gives mine workers a voice on safety issues.

The International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions estimates 12,000 miners die on the job every year. In Chile, 31 miners died as of August this year, according to an analysis report released by Sernageomin, the government's mining oversight agency. There has been an average of 34 mining deaths per year in the country since 2000, according to reports. By comparison, there was an average of 69 deaths in mines in the United States in the years 2006 and 2007, while there were 2,631 deaths recorded in China's coal mines in 2009, according to Xinhua, the country's official press agency.

While the underground ordeal of the 33 miners has raised awareness of mine safety, about 300 of their fellow workers at the San Esteban Primera company are struggling to draw attention to their financial plight.

Many of the workers have not been paid since October 8, and they have been marching on an almost daily basis this month in the main plaza of Copiapo to press for a settlement of their dues.

"You must understand, what happened to the other miners, you don't wish that to anybody, but it is true they got a lot of attention and sometimes we feel forgotten," said Evelyn Olmos, the president of the workers' union at the San Esteban Primera company.

The company, which had its assets frozen by the government and does not have the money to pay the men their wages, has been trying to negotiate a 12-month payout schedule for the men's severance.

The men must agree to terms to terminate their contract before they can find other work, but say they deserve all the money in one payment.

In the meantime, men such as John Bugueno Gonzalez, who worked at a processing plant for the company and recently celebrated his 45th birthday in his single-storey home, have struggled to keep food on the table for his family.

"Tomorrow is my birthday but it will be without cake," he said.