SANTIAGO – After mounting pressure from copper miners to improve working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic, state-owned Codelco released a statement on June 20, announcing operational changes. Several “exceptional measures” to prevent the spread of the virus were made public, including partial project closures, altered shift schedules, increased testing, and protocol changes to ensure workers are sourced locally, reducing circulation. However, the Federation of Copper Workers believe these changes are insufficient, and have threatened to take steps to force stricter health policies.
Codelco’s new measures come after weeks of complaints from workers at mines operated by the company. At the Escondida mine near Santiago, 98 of its 10,000 workers had already tested positive for the coronavirus on June 11, and The Federation of Copper Workers even announced that one of their members had passed away from Covid-19. By June 14, 115 workers at Chuquicamata, the world’s largest open pit copper mine, had tested positive, while almost 200 workers were in preventative quarantine awaiting test results. Workers at Chuquicamata demanded protections and stated that if their requests were not met they would stage a walkout.
Earlier this month, Codelco unions demanded a review of the operational continuity plans after an “alarming,” spike in Covid-19 cases at numerous sites. Despite this, government mining representative Alex Acuña said in a video that “all the protocols were being applied accordingly,” as reported by Reuters.
The tensions between miners and Codelco management reached a critical point on June 20, after a second miner died from the virus. In addition, the government increased its estimated number of fatal cases to more than 7,000 from a previously confirmed 4,265, in an attempt to reevaluate its much-criticized protocols for registering deaths. These events prompted Codelco to release a statement, just hours after confirmation of the second miner’s death, detailing changes to help prevent the spread of the virus on its sites.
Suspension of Codelco Operations
The statement confirmed that all mining operations in northern regions were to be suspended, with operations in Chuquicamata continuing at a reduced rate (apart from the mine’s underground operations which will also be suspended). These suspensions came just before new Health Minister Enrique Paris announced a quarantine in some northern regions (Antofagasta, Tocopilla, and Mejillones) as Covid-19 case counts were beginning to rise sharply – over the weekend, 246 new cases were registered in Antofagasta, leading to a total of 6,461 infections in the region.
It was also mentioned that El Teniente and El Salvador mines near Santiago, the epicenter of the outbreak in Chile, would move to a 14-day on/14-day off shift schedule, and that they would begin to test workers three times per shift. A Codelco spokesperson told BNamericas that shift extensions at El Salvador will remain in place until September. In its statement, Codelco described these new measures as “extraordinary,” allowing the company to “ensure the continuity of operations,” and hopefully reduce worker transport by 30%.
Codelco also stated that Chuquicamata, where the first coronavirus death occurred early this month, will only operate with personnel from the neighboring town of Calama in a bid to reduce worker circulation while “maintaining production levels at the mine,” the statement reads.
Copper Workers Demand “Urgent Preventive Measures”
The Federation of Copper Workers, however, has condemned these new measures – which aim to safely continue mine output – as insufficient, stating “Under no pretext will we accept the prioritization of production if we are not guaranteed urgent preventive measures of the highest standard.” In a statement, the Federation threatened to take steps if the company’s health protocols were not tightened, but they did not specify what these steps would be.
The conflict between protecting workers’ safety and continuing productivity is further complicated by the fact that mining is one of the few industries in Chile that can continue to bolster the national economy during the pandemic.
In May, the Chilean copper industry ranked among the least-affected globally by the pandemic, anticipating just a one percent reduction in output according to Reuters, with mines continuing to meet their quotas despite layoffs.
Codelco in particular has asserted that sales and shipments of copper have stayed on track, allowing the company to maintain its position as the largest producer of copper in the world. In fact, the mining company only saw a one percent decrease in output since the beginning of the pandemic and had increased its April output by more than 11 percent since 2019.
Unlike other industrial sectors in Chile, copper mining could retain its momentum during the pandemic, but, in order to do so safely, Codelco will have to work more closely with mining unions to implement safety measures they deem sufficient.
Shanti is a multilingual journalist, with a keen interest in Latin American politics, economics, and culture. Having studied languages and media at Cambridge University and Universidade de São Paulo respectively, she then gained editorial experience in the documentary film industry, with a specific focus on South American affairs. You can find her on Twitter @shantidurocher.