Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pathfinders: Extracting the Miguel (2010)

The Pathfinders Column from the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Extracting the Miguel

When the shift started on August 5 most people had never heard of the San Jose mine, and could barely point to the Atacama desert on a map. By the time the 33 miners were rescued on October 14 the mine was front-page news worldwide and the site tented like Glastonbury with journalists and press photographers.

What happened in between, from the moment the mineshaft collapsed and bottled up the miners in a mile-deep tomb, is a fairytale of capitalism in action, together with feelgood ending.

First, the collapse itself. Maybe somebody’s fault, maybe not. Accidents happen, who knows? The mine was already ‘crying’ rocks from the tunnel roofs so they knew something was wrong, but they went in anyway, being offered double-pay.

"Hopefully this will teach us not to chase money, but to be humble and treasure our friends and family instead," said one miner’s sister. Easy to say afterwards, but sometimes to escape poverty people will take big risks. Will it teach the mine-owners not to chase money but to be humble and treasure their families instead? Hardly.

The film-script almost writes itself. Tom Hanks will be down there, gritty and long-suffering, wearing a large moustache and a fake accent. They have air, but only 48 hours rations, the first rescue attempt aborts after another collapse, and nobody’s going to reach them for weeks, if not months. Can they survive alone, in the dark and fetid heat? Can they keep together and keep sane, against the odds, until the first pilot drillbit breaks through?

On the surface, drill teams work heroically round the clock, effort and money no object. The President is on hand, the Minister for Industry is camping there permanently, the eyes of the world are helicoptering overhead. A bit of science and diagrams to keep us hooked, nothing too difficult. Will they or won’t they make it? We hold our breath.

And then... breakthrough – the first book deals smash through the rock and scatter among the buried men, followed by a blast of cool, refreshing sponsorship offers. Pretty soon every company who can send a product down a hole in the ground is vying to get a piece into the action and five seconds of on-screen logo time. Yes, trauma or triumph, capitalism knows how to extract the most out of any situation.

And then, up they come, designer sunglasses and media contracts in place, a teary-eyed President on hand to drape them in the flag, sing the national anthem and praise God and all things Chilean as his own popularity rating winches through the roof faster than any bullet capsule. These men are made for life, with a thousand job offers to share among them, and all the nightmares and the PTSD to come might even seem worth it.

So, a rousing saga of how humans pull together to pull out the stops when their brothers need their help, a fairytale of our times, the stuff of legend.

It wouldn’t be the stuff of socialism though. Rather than thanking God and their bosses for getting them out, why weren’t they blaming God and their bosses for sending them down in the first place? In a moneyless socialist society those men couldn’t have been economically blackmailed into doing anything so dangerous. It is highly debatable whether socialist extractive industries would be going to such lengths to extract gold or copper, but even supposing they did, and that machines could not be used instead, the socialist approach would be to make the mine safe first rather than to throw technology at the problem afterwards. As Bernard Shaw once put it: ‘it’s better to build a fence at the top of the cliff than a hospital at the bottom.’ But in capitalism, where the private company has to pay for the fence whereas the state has to pay for the hospital, logic functions somewhat differently. With a wage-slave workforce you don’t have to rely on volunteers to walk towards the abyss, and in the event of accidents you can count on victims not being able to afford the kind of lawyers you can buy.

Still, the prolonged tale and likely success guaranteed global media interest so at least the world had a chance to ignore all the thousands of industrial accidents that happen every year without happy outcomes, all the result of capitalism’s ruthlessly extractive nature, both of natural and human resources.

These 33 miners got out in one piece, and good luck to them, but the carnival of capitalism at the drillhead shouldn’t disguise that basic truth. Most workers don’t get celeb status for their sufferings, they just get shat on and forgotten.

Sludge funds
Meanwhile, what happens if you mix large amounts of rust, quicklime and radioactive trace metals and then add the Danube? Answer, a hell of a lot of recrimination. While the Chilean President has declared in a moment of unguarded recklessness that legislation on deep mining will be tightened up so that accidents like San Jose don’t happen again, over in Hungary there are axes poised over heads as their own mini-Gulf disaster leaves their neighbours seeing miles of red. Mining companies in Europe are apparently notorious for not spending money on double-walling toxic waste as is standard in other industries (New Scientist, 16 October) and there is no legislation in place to make them do it. 8 people died and 100 were injured by this tsunami of red gunk, and it would only have cost the company the price of a second back-up wall to prevent it. But no doubt it was more ‘financially astute’ to let the state provide hospitals for the victims.

Getting Shafted

October 2010, China: Explosion in Yuzhou mine in central Henan province kills 37 (BBC News, 17 October).

China is responsible for 80 percent of global mining deaths, with more than 2,600 miners dying in accidents in 2009, but major mining accidents in 2010 with dozens of fatalities each have also occurred in Colombia, Russia and the United States, while at least 200 have died in Sierra Leone.

There are no reliable global statistics for mining deaths, but the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM) estimates there are 12,000 fatalities per year.

“A lot of mining deaths aren’t recorded. It is really hard to put a number on it. In a lot of countries, management will go to the widows or family and give them money and make them sign statements not to talk about it”, said a spokesman for ICEM (International Business Times, 11 October).

NB: the good news is that safety standards are slowly improving. Now mining is not considered as dangerous as construction or agriculture, which annually kill more workers.
Paddy Shannon