Chile rescue complete

They may be out, but what next for 'Los 33'?

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The party will start in earnest today on the second and third floors of the Regional Hospital in Copiapo, where the survivors of the San Jose Mine are being taken to meet their extended families, under the watchful eye of doctors. But when the euphoria subsides, one pressing issue will remain: on paper, at least, "Los 33" are out of a job.

Before the disaster that entombed them for almost 70 days, the men were earning roughly 320,000 pesos (£1,000) a month. That salary was between 30 and 40 per cent higher than standard in Chile's privately owned mines, since the extreme age and depth of this particular mine was thought (accurately, as it happened) to make it dangerous.

Although their employer, the San Esteban mining company, has both filed for bankruptcy protection and had its licence to operate withdrawn, the families of the miners continued to receive salaries during their time underground.

The men's release puts them back on the job market, however. At first, that shouldn't prove too much of a problem: they should on paper be due a huge financial windfall. They have talked of establishing a foundation to manage their income from media deals, ensuring proceeds are shared out equally.

But with Copiapo now filled with hundreds of journalists, many of them waving chequebooks, it is anyone's guess as to whether their unity will survive.

If they want to resume work in the mining industry, the men certainly aren't short of options. A Chilean government website set up to help all 300 employees of San Esteban has already generated more than 1,000 job offers, from bulldozer driver to mechanic to risk reduction specialist.

Then there are the courts. The families of 27 of the men have launched a joint negligence suit against the owners of the San Jose mine and government regulators. That could be bad news for employees of Chile's privately run mining firms. Juan Eduardo Herrera, a senior employee of Codelco, the state-owned mining firm, told The Independent that even when they cut corners with safety procedures, these firms operate small mines that are only marginally profitable.

"What happened here was a regulatory lapse," he said. "The mine owners were dragging their feet. Regulators should have closed the mine. But miners and their families often push inspectors to let them carry on working in a dangerous mine, because if a mine shuts down, they are out of a job."

Chile's government was responsible for the regulatory lapse that led to the initial San Jose mine disaster, so is tightening up oversight of the entire industry. But that, says Mr Herrera, could see thousands of men who work at the dirty end of the copper industry facing redundancy. "Now the authorities will become stricter, so some of Chile's smaller mines will have to close," he said.

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