Leading article: Dangers under the ground

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The global fascination in the tale of the trapped Chilean miners is no mystery. The story has had all the ingredients of dramas found in every culture: the moments of despair, the kindling of hope, the emotional final rescue. Its details – from the thought of being locked deep underground, to the joy of being reunited with a family that had presumed you lost forever – spoke to something inside all of us. And thanks to modern telecommunications, the world has been able to follow this tale in real time.

The efficient rescue appears to have created a mood of national optimism in Chile. The President, Sebastián Piñera, declared yesterday that "when Chile is united, we are capable of doing great things". His enthusiasm is understandable, especially since the rescue operation was expected to take several more months. Yet amid the rejoicing and the congratulations we should not lose sight of the fact that these miners were betrayed, in the first place, by their employers (the mine's owners) and also badly let down by their own government, which failed to regulate the company properly.

The San Jose copper mine in the Atacama region was notoriously unsafe. Some 180 miners had suffered injuries in 2006. And between 2004 and 2010 the firm received 42 fines for breaching safety regulations. The government actually ordered the mine's closure in 2007, but it re-opened less than 12 months later, despite workers' protests about inadequate safety.

A picture has emerged of a government incapable of regulating the sprawling mining sector adequately. There were only three inspectors for the almost 900 mines in the Atacama region. And for the country as a whole there were only 16 official overseers.

Since the accident, the Chilean government has spent considerable sums on the rescue and the national Mine Safety Bureau has been awarded more resources. But some doubt whether, once the global media spotlight has moved on, this investment will be sustained. Others wonder whether there would have been such an extensive rescue effort in the first place if just a handful of miners had been trapped, rather than 33.

Away from the compelling drama that has dominated our screens and airwaves this week, tens of thousands of men (and it is still almost exclusively men) are quietly taking risks in mines deep underground all around the world. China's mines are notoriously unsafe. Some 2,600 miners were killed last year, representing 80 per cent of global mining deaths. The mines in Russia and the former Soviet republics also have a poor safety record. A hundred and sixty-five died in South Africa's mines last year and the union is calling for new safety legislation.

The president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in South Africa, Senzeni Zokwana, has claimed that mining companies are paying more attention to profits than safety. It is a familiar complaint. The San Jose mine was run by a relatively small operator, which has since filed for bankruptcy. But large companies are equally capable of cutting corners on workers' safety, as the recent history of the oil giant, BP, in the United States demonstrates.

The global economy's insatiable thirst for natural resources will continue to drive workers underground. The Chilean mining union has suggested that many of the rescued miners from San Jose will, eventually, go back to work in the mines simply because there are so few other means for them to earn a living in Chile. And mining will always – and inevitably – be relatively dangerous work. But the least the rest of us can do is to put pressure on mine owners and governments the world over to ensure that this job is no more perilous than it needs to be.

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