Chilean miners' ordeal 'caused by greed and graft'

Bosses may face charges as unions reveal pit had been closed after deaths but reopened, despite failure to meet safety requirements

The Chilean mining accident was the result of a race for profits by mine owners – who may face criminal charges – at a boom time in the price of two metals, combined with a scandalous disregard for safety, according to trade unionists.

Despite a legal requirement, there were no alternative exits from the San Jose copper and gold mine, which has left 33 miners imprisoned 700 metres underground since 5 August. Union efforts to permanently close San Jose and the neighbouring San Antonio mine have failed, despite a spate of fatalities.

The government ordered the closure of the San Jose mine after deaths in 2006 and 2007, but a year later a junior official, allegedly exceeding his powers, authorised its reopening without the owners having installed a stairway in the ventilation passages. This stairway would have saved the 33 men this month. Instead, employees were sacked and non-unionised labour taken on. On 3 July this year a man lost his leg in a rockfall, and later in the month the Labour Department warned of serious safety deficiencies.

The neglect of such elementary safety precautions is the legacy of decades of anti-union activity by General Augusto Pinochet, whose Western-backed dictatorship between 1973 and 1990 did its best to crush the unions. Subsequent governments have failed to abolish his repressive legislation.

Recent decisions by the Chilean courts – which failed to take any action against the dictator after he was returned to Chile in 2000 by the former home secretary Jack Straw on charges of murder and torture – illustrate how the legal dice are loaded in favour of the rich and against the poor in Chile.

But the two mine owners, Alejandro Bohn – also the mine manager – and Marcelo Kemeny, may face criminal charges after they were questioned by prosecutors last week. A court has embargoed 900 million pesos (£1.2m) of company funds to meet possible claims arising from the disaster. This comes after the two had been hinting that they would seek bankruptcy, which would relieve them of their financial obligations to their workforce and other liabilities. Mr Bohn, who earlier said that he was "tremendously happy" that emergency plans seemed to have worked, said: "I believe this is not the moment to assume responsibilities."

Suspicion is growing that the mine was allowed to continue working only by dint of bribery. Chile, where vast fortunes have been made from mining, has only 16 mine inspectors to look after 4,500 mines. There have been 31 fatal mining accidents this year alone.

Neglect of the law is fostered by the keen interest of successive governments to make Chile – by far the world's largest copper producer – a mining giant, outstripping its neighbour Peru. The miners are paying the price.

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