When a worker at a Canadian-owned mine in Chile was exposed to a family member with COVID-19, the union representing workers felt the mine’s management took an unnecessary risk by continuing to operate.
“They were playing Russian roulette,” said Edgardo Perez, a director with the Sindicato de Trabajadores de Teck Carmen de Andacollo, which represents some 475 workers at the mine. “They don’t listen to reason.”
Teck Resources Ltd., headquartered in Vancouver, owns a 90-per-cent stake in the Carmen de Andacollo open-pit copper and gold mine in central Chile, about 350 kilometres north of Santiago.
After being exposed at home to COVID-19, the worker put in a full shift at the mine. Once the union learned of the possible exposure, it wanted to pause operations for two or three days to wait for test results that could confirm others who’d worked with him weren’t at risk, but management refused, Perez said.
Nor would the company agree to have the worker’s direct contacts go into quarantine during the waiting period. “Luckily nobody was infected,” Perez said. “The reality is that any moment it could have happened.”
It easily could have turned out worse. At another mine where Teck is a minority partner, Antamina in Peru, 210 workers were infected and one died. That mine reduced and then suspended operations for several weeks under a state of emergency the Peruvian government ordered.
Teck’s director of public affairs, Doug Brown, said the company acted appropriately in deciding to keep the mine in Chile running. “In all cases where a worker at a Teck site has potentially been in contact with someone with COVID-19 they are required to self-isolate for the recommended period,” he said in an emailed response to questions. “There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Carmen de Andacollo to date.”
The novel coronavirus is known to have killed nearly 400,000 people worldwide since it first emerged in December and has disrupted economies everywhere.
Through it all, however, mining companies have tended to keep operating and, in many cases, have played a role in the virus spreading, said Kirsten Francescone, the Latin America program co-ordinator for MiningWatch Canada. She added they also generate pollution that harms people’s underlying health and makes them more susceptible to COVID-19.
“It’s not like any of them took a stand at any point to put workers and community health first and now we’re seeing the consequences of that,” she said. “There are so many reasons why it’s a bad idea to keep these industries operating.”
MiningWatch and partner organizations in other countries began monitoring how mining companies were responding to the pandemic and built a database with what they found. They gathered their findings into a 51-page report, Voices from the Ground: How the Global Mining Industry is Profiting from the COVID-19 Pandemic.
“There’s a real global trend happening here that we thought was interesting to interrogate,” Francescone said. “There were just so many cases. The report is so big because there was a lot of abuse going on and a lot of really serious allegations of abuse going on.”
Canadian-owned mines stood out as the sites of a third of the outbreaks gathered in the database, 62 per cent of the deaths and all of the transmissions from mines into communities that led to deaths, according to MiningWatch.
“On a global scale, our Canadian companies in Canada and abroad were particularly salient actors in all of this,” Francescone said.
And yet many of the companies, including Teck, have also been making announcements about how they were helping, she said. “We started seeing that those same companies that were donating test kits or becoming these saviours of public health, were the same companies that had serious allegations for having seriously affected public health.”
The report noted that on April 16, Teck announced it would donate $20 million across its operations in Canada, Chile and Peru to “protect the health and well-being of communities.”
“However, the announcement was not accompanied by suspension of its operations in Peru, Chile or Canada, where the company has been accused of failing to protect workers and community health from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report noted.
Perez said workers at the mine in Chile, who were on strike for 52 days in the fall, have many disagreements with Teck’s management. The biggest issue currently is management wanting to unilaterally switch to a new schedule where workers would be on for 14 days, then off for 14 days, instead of the current four-day schedule.
“They want us workers to work 14 days in a row, but they don’t want to compensate them economically,” he said. “If the company wants that, they have to pay for it, otherwise we won’t allow it.”
Overall there’s a problem of a “broken” relationship where workers feel the company doesn’t respect them, where there’s a lack of trust, a dynamic that was again evident in how it addressed the risk of spreading COVID-19, he said.
“For the company, it’s always the production that’s the most important thing,” he said. “We want to continue operation, we don’t want the company to leave, but we want things to be good, the company respecting the environment, respecting its workers, respecting the community.”
Teck’s Brown said the health and safety of workers and communities is the company’s first priority. “We have worked closely with unions and authorities to put in place extensive and consistent measures across our sites to prevent transmission, provide support to employees and local communities, and safely maintain jobs and economic opportunity to the extent possible,” he said in the emailed response.
At Carmen de Andacollo, he said, there’s temperature screening for all employees and contractors entering or leaving the site, more cleaning and disinfecting and promotion of frequent handwashing. There’s also increased social distancing with the number of passengers on buses cut by half, groups of employees separated, meetings held electronically, large gatherings reduced or eliminated, and lunch and break times staggered.
Brown said “employees who show symptoms or are in close contact with someone with symptoms” are required to stay home from work.
He also said the company is “working in collaboration with the municipality and the mayor on additional measures by Teck such as vehicle sanitization at the entry to the town of Andacollo and street sanitization within the community. The mayor has publicly recognized these actions.”
And the company’s $20-million fund for COVID-19 response includes money for health-care services in La Serena, which serves the region, he said.
The announcement of the fund makes it clear it will be widely spread with support going to services and organizations in several countries and a donation of one million masks to British Columbia.
The union’s Perez said that despite the wealth coming out of the mine in Chile, the company has never done anything big for the public there. “We know Teck gives important money in Vancouver for a hospital, lots of money. What have they done here for our hospital?”
On March 23, a Chilean news outlet quoted Andacollo Mayor Juan Carlos Alfaro calling on the national government to stop operations at mines in the country and expressing concern about recent blasting at Teck’s mine in his community.
“The situation that Teck generates is worrying, because if the dust comes to the city it will complicate much more in the event that we have contagion problems,” he said. “Hopefully Teck becomes aware of what is happening and collaborates with the Andacollo community.”
In an interview this week, Andacollo town Councillor Javier Cifuentes González said concerns about the mine continue. There have long been issues in the town of 13,000 people with dust, air pollution, noise, and bad chemical smells from the site, he said.
“The fear we have now is that COVID attacks the respiratory system and the bad quality of life with the mine so close to our community worries us,” he said. The nearest house to the mine is within a few hundred metres. “It is an enormous danger for our town because they make a lot of pollution.”
González acknowledged the company has promised the council help with sanitation, but said Teck has been slow on delivering on past commitments, giving the example of a two-year old promise of a security camera that is yet to be fulfilled.
He said he wants Teck to reduce the intensity of the work at the mine and cut the number of explosions so that the air quality improves.
Canadians need to know how the company is operating in his community, he said. “It’s important that people know the situation in Andacollo with this business that brings a great danger to our community.”
Perez from the union also expressed a belief that many Canadians are unaware of what companies headquartered in the country are doing in communities like his.
“I have the impression that people there don’t know the truth of what’s happening here,” he said. “I have the impression that in Canada the company claims that everything is good. It’s a big lie.”