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Chile: It's a waiting game at makeshift camps

Dozens of tents line the road that leads to the mine as families prepare for a long wait.

Chile’s extraordinary initiative to rescue the miners, which has galvanized Chileans and become a source of national pride, stands in stark contrast to other mining accidents in Latin America.

“How many countries in Latin America would do what Chile is doing?” asked Ivan Marin, an editor of a Chilean internet mining industry site.

In 2006, Marin pointed out, a methane explosion at the Pasta de Conchos coal mine in Mexico trapped 65 miners. In this notorious incident, families of the miners complained that Grupo Mexico, the company responsible, abandoned efforts to save the trapped miners six days after the accident as the Mexican government stood on the sidelines and did nothing to intervene.

Still, workers at the mine say the Chilean government ought to do more to help them with their personal economic loss. The San Esteban company, which owns the mine, is set to declare bankruptcy this week putting about 270 people out of work and their paychecks in jeopardy.

Workers furthermore say that the government shares in the blame for the accident. Twenty-five days after a July 3 accident at the San Jose mine caused one miner to have a leg amputated, Chile’s regional health ministry authorized the reopening of the mine. Five days after the mine reopened, the present mining accident occurred.

The mine was also temporarily closed in 2007 after a miner died in an accident.

The regional health minister responsible for reopening the mine resigned on Monday as dozens of concerned miners were meeting with government officials at the mine urging that authorities step in to guarantee that they get paid throughout the rescue effort, receive unemployment benefits afterward and are given assistance in securing new work.

Javier Castillo, 42, one of the leaders of the miners union, said that Chile’s mining industry is a “worldwide scandal” for its precarious labor conditions. He said the Chilean economic model also forces young boys and men above the age of 50 to engage in hard manual labor in mines due to no viable employment alternative for supporting their families.

“In Chile, we have the freedom to work but not the right to work,” said Castillo.

Castillo adds that while the out-of-work miners do not want the San Esteban company to reopen the mine, they do urge that a new company, with sufficient resources to invest in miner safety, be allowed to set up at a different side of the site to continue exploiting the minerals at the mine.