Winners, losers in miners saga

2010-10-13 11:47

Miners trapped deep underground since August 5 in a Chilean gold and copper mine were being hoisted to the surface today in a methodical rescue operation.

Rescuers expect to bring all 33 of the miners to safety over the next two days.

The accident shone a spotlight on lax mining controls in the world’s top copper producer, but also highlighted a mature industry that has the machinery and expertise to handle one of the world’s most challenging rescues ever.

Here are the winners and losers in a saga that has attracted worldwide attention.

Winners

» President Sebastian Pinera has seen his popularity surge since the miners were found alive following a sloppy start with a series of government fumbles that enraged relatives of the men and the public watching the drama.

The self-made billionaire is likely to benefit from his renewed popularity as he seeks to pass controversial legislation that hikes taxes on foreign mining companies operating in the country.

» State-run Codelco and private miners have had some free publicity with the months-long operation to free the miners.

Codelco, the world’s top copper producer, has led the rescue, showing expertise and resources that could strengthen views among Chileans that the mining company should remain completely in state hands.

Pinera and his government have floated the idea of selling part of Codelco to boost efficiency and cut costs.

Private engineering firms and drillers have also had their 15 minutes of fame with around-the-clock television exposure.

» Union leaders believe the San Jose accident helped boost the image of miners who were increasingly considered privileged employees with high wages and hefty bonuses, according to previous opinion polls.

They said the Chilean public is now more aware of the dangers miners face in the workplace and why they should be paid more.

Miners in Chile are some of the best paid in Latin America, with cash bonuses linked to new contracts that could reach over $25?000 (about R175?000) per employee at larger companies.

An improved image could help unions exert pressure on employers if upcoming wage negotiations turn ugly.

Some of the world’s top copper mines, Collahuasi and Radomiro Tomic, are negotiating new contracts due later this year.

Losers
» Chile mining regulators proved unprepared for the accident, which shocked the mining nation and prompted Pinera to fire the chief regulator.

The accident unveiled the underbelly of an industry long thought to be safe for employees.

Pinera has introduced legislation to revamp the regulator, increasing their budget across the mineral-rich Atacama desert.

» Small- and medium-sized mines have felt the fallout of the accident as the government moved rapidly to close dozens of tiny deposits across the country over safety conditions.

Investors in those mines accuse the government of carrying out a witch-hunt to cover up previous shortcomings that led to the San Jose deposit accident.

Although production from those mines is likely to decline, it is very unlikely it could hurt world supply as the bulk of production is done by larger companies that spend big to comply with international safety standards.

Authorities could face lawsuits by the miners and their relatives for failing to properly inspect the mine and avoid the cave-in that trapped the men underground.

» The mine’s owners, local private company Compania Minera San Esteban Primera, are blamed by the public, miners and many officials for the accident.

The firm is currently undergoing an internal audit of its assets and debt to determine if it should declare bankruptcy.

The mine, which is more than 100 years old, had a long history of accidents that killed and seriously injured many miners in recent years.

Feeble wooden planks were used to reinforce the walls of the deposit instead of sturdier steel columns.

It also took the mine owners hours to inform authorities about the accident, saying they first had to evaluate the situation.

Miners’ relatives have already filed suit against the company, asking for a total of around $10 million while local prosecutors are mulling criminal charges against the owners.

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