Mining and its Discontents

by Sanjena Sathian

Workers at the El Teniente copper mine outside of Santiago like to gossip at lunch.

The hefty, orange jumpsuit clad men get only one hour for lunch, in the middle of 10 to 15-hour days of tough manual labor. Over cafeteria trays of mysterious looking jello and unknown lunchmeat, the conversation is like that of most workplaces; the men talk about their women, their weekend plans, their bosses—the first two they discuss with relish, the last with disdain.

But for some of the miners working at El Teniente, complaining about their bosses means real danger. It means shaking their fist at more than just an employer. It means enormous, sometimes dangerous, displays of anger.

The day I walked into the mine’s lunchroom, a hush muffled some of the conversation in line. I had heard rumors of a protest to occur in Rancagua, the mining town an hour south of Santiago where most of the miners at El Teniente live. Word about it would spread only to those who were trusted with the information. When I asked some of the workers if they knew about the protest, most laughed and ignored me. Others shrugged and then looked at each other meaningfully.

The crowd of large, tough men eyed me. One smiled, his leathery skin turning velvety soft. His name was Rodrigo Varga.

“There are violent protests sometimes,” he said. “I support the disorder. It makes noise.”

Several days later, a protest did erupt in Rancagua. It was organized by one of the country’s most left-wing unions, the Confederation of Copper Workers. Just one day later, more protests made the news in Calama, a city in the heart of northern copper mining country. Miners from the Chuqicamata mine near the city took to the streets, shutting down highways and blocking inter-city transit buses. The protests differed in their immediate grievances: the one in Rancagua was about labor rights for mine workers, while Calama’s was a citizens’ protest calling for a redistribution of government royalties gathered from taxes on mining companies. They represented two distinct kinds of anger growing against the mining industry in Chile: the laborers’ protests are a fight from below, standard union disputes, while the citizens’ protests come from a deeper anger among the middle class at Chile’s fundamental economic system. And this May, the two movements were converging—and radicalizing—with unprecedented momentum.

For an industry that generates so much of the wealth in the country—hardly anyone disputes the notion that mining is creating riqueza, riches—the big question mark hanging above the dry desert sky is where it’s all going. The protests over the last several months are responses to the inequity of this industry.

The narrative that dominates in Santiago politics is simple enough. Mining supplies Chile with over 50 percent of its energy, brings in money, and secures relationships with powerful allies like China, Japan, and Korea. Because of the mining industry, around 20 flights a day depart from Santiago north into the Atacama Desert. Because of the mining industry, foreign investment in Chile has increased in the last several decades. Because of the mining industry, this nation is where foreigners come to feel safe in Latin America. Because of the mining industry, Chile is not Bolivia or Venezuela.

Many tellings of Chilean history link the country’s identity with its vast mineral resources. In the 1970s, socialist President Salvador Allende nationalized mineral rights and created the state-owned copper company Codelcoby buying out shares of foreign private companies. Chile is one of the top three producers of copper in the world today, alongside Peru and the US. But Codelco doesn’t reap in all those benefits, or even most—today, about 70 percent of Chilean copper is mined and extracted by foreign companies, who enjoy long periods of tax-free time in the country while they recoup their initial investment capital.

But it’s Codelco that represents the grand hope, and the grand failing, for many Chileans. Codelco provides jobs for 40,000 people in a country of 17 million. The private companies are smaller and hire fewer Chileans. Both the protesting cities, Calama and Rancagua, are home to most of the miners working at nearby Codelco mines. The cities are like feudal estates. And if Codelco is the grand lord, the miners I spoke with in the El Teniente cafeteria are a step above serfs. Like the increasingly large majority of workers, they are not employed by Codelco, but instead by a third party company who subcontracts out labor to save money. Those third party companies hire the subcontratos, or sub-contract-workers, and they’re not responsible for providing them with as many health or education benefits as Codelco provides to its employees. The justification Codelo workers give for the division is based on training: empleados are higher-skilled and usually educated—at least with a bachelor’s degree, many with some post-graduate education as well. But the subcontratos aren’t interested in hearing the reasons any longer. They’ve been angry for a long time, and in the past five years, they’ve started to say something about it.


In the lunchroom at El Teniente, Varga, the smiling subcontrato, told me he can’t see progress coming—ever. Not progress in the way he and his fellow subcontract workers are treated, and certainly not progress in the way the economic system in Chile is structured.

“It’s classist,” he said. I asked him if he thought he could see the riches of the industry anywhere in his life. A few of his friends crowded around to join in the answer.

“In my orange suit!” Pablo Nuñez joked.

Nuñez, the class clown of the group, invited me to sit down to lunch with him, Varga, and Carlos Oscares. They are heavy-set, middleaged men, each sporting his own brand of graying scruff and a yellowing smile. The three of them told me about their health benefits (they get a check-up once a year), their hours (long), and their families (big, hungry).

A year ago in Rancagua, they didn’t have a grocery store. Now they do. That’s the best example of change from the mining industry to which they can point.

Vivan Abul, who runs one of the subcontrato unions in Rancagua, told me that subcontratos do as much as 70 percent of the work in El Teniente and other Codelco mines. It’s the “dirty work” she told me—unskilled, un-glamorous, and often unsafe. Oscares had friends who developed lung diseases or cancer, which he attributed to the time they spent in the mine, and their single check-up a year wasn’t enough to treat them. They weren’t working for Codelco mines anymore, and he had since lost touch with them. Each of the miners had a story like this.

Abul told me that most of the accidents in mines happen to subcontratos. They receive the same safety equipment as employees of the company, but less training—and they’re the ones standing near heavy equipment and trucks in the belly of the dark mine.

Leaving El Teniente, I felt light-headed descending the mountain. The mine looked like a comically overgrown children’s Lego toy—full of primary-colored scaffolding and a few wisps of smoke spiraling up into the sky. The last thing I saw before I dozed off was a bright yellow billboard cheerily declaring, “la seguridad está antes que la producción” or “safety before production.” I remembered what Nuñez had told me earlier, his mouth full of sloppy cafeteria meat.

“Someone died here two weeks ago. Run over by a truck. One of our guys.”

Ignacio Pino, one of the supervising lawyers at El Teniente, works with the Codelco employee union in Rancagua that represents only employees with advanced degrees—engineers, lawyers, and doctors. Sitting in Codelco offices in Rancagua, I couldn’t help but notice Pino’s striking resemblance to President Allende; he is white-haired, distinguished, grandfatherly, and exceedingly eloquent. He wore a crisp white button-down, suspenders, and glasses.

“We, as people with social sensibilities, want better conditions for everyone,” he said, when I asked if he supported the subcontratos’ cause. “But I cannot support this kind of protest.”

Pino showed me photographs of the famously violent subcontrato protests from 2008: burning buses overturned up the mountainside to El Teniente. Men charging at supervisors with fury etched into their calloused hands. The worlds seemed unbridgeable: Pino, in his wood-paneled office, is a middle-class liberal with no social impetus charging him to join the fight. He struck me as a foreigner to the dark, clammy roads that twist through the mountain. But when he spoke about the economic system in Chile in general, he told me again that he was sympathetic to the problems the subcontratos faced.

“Our big problem is the economic model. Chile is a rich country but the proportion of access that the rich classes have is more,” he said. “Have you read Marx?”

I nodded.

“Eighty percent of the riches of the country belong to twenty percent of the country,” he said, and spread his palms before him on the desk. That was all the explanation he owed.

The system was wrong; intellectually, he agreed with criticisms of it. But the subcontratos’ fight simply wasn’t his. Criticisms of Chile’s economic system are common in casual parlance like this; I heard hundreds of indifferent dismissals of “the system.” The attitude I encountered—in Pino and others—speaks to an irresolution within Chile. And as the country tries to define itself, some, like the subcontratos, are moving drastically to the left in search of an identity. Others remain comfortably at the center, holding Chile in the status quo.

I met with Hugo Díaz, another Codelco-employed union leader, after Pino. He’s heavyset and looks rougher than Pino. Díaz told me he had once been jailed for his radical left-wing beliefs during General Pinochet’s military dictatorship. But in the years since Pinochet, he said he moved slowly away from radicalism. It wasn’t necessary any longer. He used to believe that all workers should unite. Now, he spends his time making sure his fellow empleados are taken care of by their parent corporation. He is sympathetic to the subcontratos, but like Pino, their fight is not his fight.

“The left is centering itself,” he told me, regretfully. “But what happens as it centers itself? The people at the bottom get left in the street.”

Subcontrato leader Abul, one of those people at the bottom, told me that subcontratos are turning increasingly to criticizing the economic system in general because they are beginning to understand the larger fabric their protests fit into. These days, she said, the fight was growing into something beyond just demands for rights.

“When the workers get class conscious, right?” she said. “There, it begins.”


When I arrived in Calama in the north, it was as though Abul’s prediction had taken place in fast-forward. The ardent anger of the miners was meeting the cooler frustration of families, towns, and citizens—and Santiago was starting to notice. The day after Rancagua’s labor protest, the subcontratos joined the mayor of Calama in denouncing FONDENOR, the Fund for Development of Northern Chile. FONDENOR, announced a few days earlier in Santiago, takes money gained from royalty taxes on transnational companies and attempts to redistribute it across northern districts where mines are located. Politicians in Santiago claimed the fund would give northerners access to some of the wealth of this industry that sprawled across their deserts and towns. Northerners disagreed, arguing that the plan didn’t go far enough to close large tax loopholes and foreign companies paid little to nothing to Chile to mine its land.

Photos of the protest were splashed across front pages the next day—images of rough miners in step, their mouths half-open, mid-yell. They stood next to grandmothers and families and middle class white-haired men. Here was a convergence, and it centered around a call for re-nationalization of the copper industry.

“Ole, ole, ola, ola, es cobre nuestro, y nadie más,” protesters chanted: It’s our copper, and no one else’s.

But calling for re-nationalization is a glitzy answer to problems that are much coarser. It’s hard to fit everything that might be wrong with the system onto a conveniently sized protest banner. In the glassy, clean corporate Codelco offices in Calama, I asked Alejandro Pizarro, who has worked for the corporate side of the company for a little over a decade, if he sees a problem with the economic system in Chile. He nodded, just as nearly everyone did. I asked him what he thought re-nationalization would mean. He smiled at me, like a parent at a smart and inquisitive child.

“Those who want re-nationalization—they want more Codelco,” he said.

Pizarro marched in the citizens’ protest against FONDENOR the week before. He doesn’t think re-nationalization means much, but he wants a better distribution of the mining resources, like most people. It’s an easy cause to get behind. Pizarro said the benefits he gets through Codelco are attractive to the rest of the population. What protestors want isn’t for the country to turn insular, he said; what they really want is a job with prestige and benefits like his. And it’s the system’s fault, he said, that there aren’t more jobs like his.

Calama residents say there are two Calamas: the dusty-streeted, scraggly one, and the one with glass-paneled office buildings and a private hospital just for Codelco workers. Here, disparities are acute. Codelco employees have their children’s educations paid for through high school and receive a generous stipend for college. But there’s no public university in Calama, and that means most Calama residents lack a secondary degree.

It’s a cycle: secondary degrees are what subcontratos would need to get better pay and benefits. And as future mining jobs look to become increasingly technical, subcontratos are sure to need higher education—one that’s nowhere in sight.

In union protests, Rancagua’s subcontratos find themselves asking for access to systems that Chileans have long believed the government owes its citizens: education, healthcare––even basic safety. The northern protesters, seizing on the universality of those values, have turned the workers’ protests into something larger, something that has not yet developed a clear face. Pizarro called the notion of re-nationalization a “political mirage”—something for people to chant in protests, to radicalize so that Santiago might actually crane its head, look north, and notice the anger brewing.

Near Calama’s central plaza, a onestory building painted with large portraits of Pablo Neruda and Salvador Allende is hard to miss. Neruda and Allende, the Chilean heroes of the left, are shown next to quotations they once said about copper. Allende’s quotation reads, in translation: “I want to insist that because the people are government, it is possible that today we can say that copper will be the Chilean people’s.” Inside the building there are banners hung around a small meeting room, reading: “trabajadores del mundo se unen para luchar”––workers of the world unite to fight. These are the offices of the Confederation of Copper Workers, the most radical of the subcontrato unions. They played a significant role in the protests in Calama the week before—the ones that were about FONDENOR but then became a cry for re-nationalization.

The secretary general of the union, JedryVelis Palma, is a scruffy-looking man with a mischievous smile. I asked him why his union felt the citizens’ protest was worth pursuing—didn’t they worry about securing their own labor rights in the short-term, like the subcontratos in Rancagua? He grinned. “This is the bigger fight,” he said. “These two fights must be together, without a doubt. These are national, transcendental questions in the country. Education is universal. Resources are universal. Re-nationalization could permit more resources for the social public good.”

Marching for labor rights alone will get Palma and his fellow workers another checkup every year or perhaps a few raises. But calling for something bigger, he hopes, might change the way Santiago thinks about economics. The afternoon I sat in the Confederation’s office in Calama, surrounded by images of hammers and sickles and newspaper clippings of Palma and his comrades being tear gassed at protests, Palma said he thought the anger against FONDENOR would trickle down into sympathy for their cause.

“Soon they will see a reason to join us,” Palma said, speaking about the middle classes.

The teleological faith in improvement that Palma had in his cause was evident later that day, as he stood before a room of subcontratos, suited in orange and on their way to the night shift at Chuqicamata. The miners regarded him with skepticism, but Palma, every ounce an eloquent politician, breathed a certain life into the room as he recounted the recent protests, ticking off the groups represented in the march: employees of Codelco, the mayor of Calama, pro-education groups, grandmothers, children. He ended with a punch, the same punch that subcontrato leader Vivian Abul ends her speeches with, the same heavy Marxist rhetoric on which many of the lowest members of Codelco have come to rely: “When the workers get class consciousness—that is how the fight works!”

The subcontratos before Palma that night were skeptical. They didn’t want to join the empleados. Some said they didn’t want to be caught on camera at a protest. Palma smiled, nodded at the right moments through each complaint by all twenty-something men in the room. And then he told them he would represent them regardless of whether or not they joined the union. The movement, he told them, had already begun, and was moving out of control, bigger and more epic in scale than any of them individually. The workers filed out, still looking skeptical.

Their faces were softer than the faces of the subcontratos had been back in the ElTeniente cafeteria. In Calama, these workers were worried, but their hardness was being rubbed away by a persistent hope—hope generated by men like Palma and a sense of escalation spreading across the north. Palma smiled as they loaded the buses to drive toward Chuquicamata. Then he rubbed his palms together and stared cheerily at the buses’ retreating dust.

“Sigue todo, sigue,” he said. It goes on.

SANJENA SATHIAN ’13 is an English major in Morse College. The majority of the interviews for this article were conducted in Spanish. Funding for this research was provided by the Paul and Evalyn Elizabeth Cook Richter Fellowship. Contact her at