Chile: neo-liberalism, weak unions and populism

In the aftermath of the rescue of the 33 trapped miners in Copiapo, I listened with incredulity as Sebastian Piñera said “when people hear the word Chile they will not remember the coup d’etat or the dictatorship, they will remember what we’ve done; all the Chileans together”.  Unfortunately the ghosts of the dictatorship won’t disappear as  quickly as he would like them to. As  I reported in this blog, the Chilean President has given 3 Chicago Boys jobs in his cabinet. Commentfactory tells us that his brother, Jose Piñera,

is today revered in many economic circles for his application of Chicago School-inspired principles, yet whose connections to Pinochet run even deeper. Jose Piñera was a minister in the Pinochet cabinet from 1978 to 1981, first as the Secretary of Labour and Social Security and then as Secretary of Mining (much of Chile’s economy is dependent on the vast copper and nitrate mines in the north of the country). During his period in office, Jose Piñera introduced legislation that saw large-scale privatisation of the pensions system and healthcare, and the repeal of laws introduced after the coup that had effectively banned trade unions, following the threat of a boycott of Chile from North American trade unions, something that would have had severe implications for the Chilean economy.

Piñera also said that the mine would close…that was until they allegedly discovered deposits of precious metals nearby. The Herald Scotland said,

Frankly, given Chile’s modern history, it did seem strange to have a right-wing government present itself as a guardian of the people. Where I found myself drawing the line with Pinera’s otherwise admirable handling of the rescue though, was his observation that in future when people think of Chile they will remember the rescue of the miners, not the 1973 coup that brought the infamous General Pinochet to power in a military dictatorship that lasted until 1990 and was marked by severe human rights violations.

If this mine collapse had happened during the dictatorship, I doubt the General would have been present to witness the rescue. Though he would have milked any successful rescue effort for all it was worth – just like Piñera has done. Away from the festive scenes and the ballyhoo, the Chile that Pinochet and his Chicago Boys created still exists: trade unions are effectively outlawed (there are two rather weak unions). This Guardian blog says,

While labour standards and workers’ rights are often sidelined by the aggressive “pro-growth” talk of development economists, they are fundamental components of social or human development.

The freedom of association and the right to join a trade union is a human right. Yet such rights are often forbidden because they form an obstruction on the road to economic growth – or so the pro-business economists tell us. The mines of Chile have been allowed to continue in business without any regard for safety. The Chilean government has consistently failed to ratify the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) conventions on health and safety in mines

The International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine & General Workers’ Unions (ICEM) yesterday called on the Government of Chile to radically change the procedural methodology it uses on mine safety once the imminent rescue of 33 miners at the San José mine near Copiapó in northern Chile is complete.

In a letter to Minister of Mining Laurence Golborne Riveros, the 20-million-member global union federation called on the government to streamline workplace safety and health enforcement, now contained in several different ministries, into a single, autonomous agency “that has full powers and full technical capabilities to inspect and correct workplace deficiencies before accidents happen.”

The San Jose mine has witnessed dozens of deaths in the last few years. However Piñera has promised a mine safety review while the mining minster, Laurence Golborne said,

Avoiding such incidents, he suggested, was not just a matter for legislation: “The real origin to avoid this in the future lies in the consciousness of people: of workers, entrepreneurs… all society to face situations of safety at work.”

The neo-liberal personal responsibility mantra is invoked here which suggests that any legislation is likely to be piecemeal.

Because of his hands on approach to the rescue, Piñera’s popularity has risen which ensures his victory in the next presidential election in 4 years. Of course if it all goes badly for the president, Golborne could always put himself forward as a candidate in the hope that people will find his good looks more appealing than his politics.


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