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Mine Workers Struggle for Safety Underground, Justice in the Streets

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As thousands take to the streets to protest global corporate domination, the power struggles just below the earth's surface remain outside the media spotlight. But over the past few weeks, turmoil in the mining industry has also spoken to the divide between the corporate elite and the impoverished multitudes--a faultline running through communities mired in poverty but rich in resources.

Papua's gold battleground

In Papua, Indonesia, the American gold and copper giant Freeport McMoRan had to shut down a facility on Monday after protesting workers set up roadblocks. The standoff at Grasberg followed a recent deadly clash between protesters and police—the culmination of an earlier strike that turned out thousands of workers demanding major wage increases.

The crisis boiled over when authorities reported discovering the bullet-ridden bodies of two contract workers  in a burning car (reportedly owned by the company), with a third corpse strewn nearby—deaths that were by no means the first nor the last in this long-running political and labor struggle.

Time's Emily Rauhala reports:

The violence, though tragic, is hardly surprising. Grasberg, which holds one of the world's largest reserves of gold and copper, has frequently seen protests over wages, working conditions and public accountability. About 8000 of the site's workers have been on strike since Sept. 15, demanding that their pay, which reportedly ranges from $1.5 to $3.00 an hour, be raised significantly. An eight-day strike in July crippled the mine, contributing to a global rise in copper prices.

Amnesty International has condemned police crackdowns on protesters, calling for an immediate investigation of alleged abuses and an halt to violent tactics.

“This latest incident shows that Indonesian police have not learned how to deal with protesters without resorting to excessive, and even lethal, force,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Director. …

“Indonesian authorities have failed to provide justice and reparations to most victims of excessive use force by the police.

This systemic impunity, to the benefit of multinational investors, attests to the structures of inequality that buttress the extractive industries operating in Global South countries. Now it’s the flow of capital, not colonial rule, that enforces regimes of exploitation.

Papua has long been riven with deep hostility toward the Indonesian government among rebel Papuans who see Indonesia as new colonizers following the end of Dutch rule. The mines are just one site of resistance. Around the time of the strikes, Amnesty also denounced the imprisonment and prosecution of Papuan activists who had demonstrated to assert regional independence.

South Africa mine workers march

A different kind of uprising has erupted in South Africa's mining industry. The mine workers union announced earlier this month that workers would "down tools" and march to call attention to unsafe, often lethal working conditions. The campaign reportedly engaged employees of Lonmin, Evander gold mines, Anglo American, and Ergo mining, with support from workers from the construction and energy sectors.

According to the New Age, disturbing patterns of worker deaths (some 128 last year alone) prompted the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to take action, both to commemorate dead workers and to call attention to long neglected safety issues. NUM pokesperson Lesiba Seshoka threatened “a total shutdown of the economy” in order to protest “ever-deteriorating levels of safety in the workplaces.”

Paul Mardon, [the Solidarity union’s] head of occupational health and safety, said the country was already looking bad three months before the end of 2011.

“According to figures we received at the beginning of last week, the country has already recorded 94 fatalities and that is a lot. We need to find new and innovative ways to bring this message across. Leadership needs to focus on raising motivation within the ranks so that workers will take care,” he said....

“I think the high price of gold was one of the factors that pushed workers to produce more. Also, the fall of ground, especially rock bursts and man-machine interaction were the main causes of such accidents,” he said.

Labor struggles from the ground up

Apparently the main threat to mine worker safety isn’t a lack of “motivation within the ranks” but an industrial superstructure that capitalizes on turning mines into gravesites. And the bodies keep piling up wherever there are riches to be unearthed. A mine explosion in a methane-filled cave killed several workers in Quetta, Pakistan last week, echoing a similar disaster in March that killed more than 40 workers. An explosion at a coal mine in central China last Saturday left 26 workers dead and 11 trapped underground. The deaths were sadly a miniscule addition to China’s extraordinary mine fatality record, which exceeded 2,600 deaths last year, according to The New York Times.

As we’ve seen with the with the epidemic of negligence at Massey Energy here in the U.S., the systemic factors that drive workers into ever-riskier environments aren’t merely a bureaucratic regulatory issue, but an endemic consequence of the frenzied pace of profit-making, which subordinates safety issues to productivity goals. Aside from workplace hazards, new stories crop up every week about the mining firms’ assault on local ecosystems and communities, threatening indigenous heritage sites in Australia and provoking militant dissenters in the Philipinnes.

This week, as protesters march on their town squares, city streets and public plazas, it’s worth contemplating the meaning of “reclaiming” space for the people’s use. If the idea is to liberate environments from corporate occupiers, then it's the struggles deep beneath the surface—led by workers toiling at the mercy of nature and capital each day—that will test the true reach of people power.

Cross-posted from In These Times.