International OHS: Through the Looking Glass of the Global Economy: In Late 2007, a Multinational Group of EHS Professionals Traveled to Mexico to Observe Working Conditions at a Giant Open-Pit Copper Mine in Cananea. What They Found Shocked Them

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The occupational health and safety conditions at the giant open-pit copper mine in Cananea, Mexico displayed how workplace safety in the global economy can best be understood through the intersection of transnational corporations, a "race to the bottom" in working conditions and growing labor internationalism.

The historic, open-pit mine and processing plants in Cananea, Mexico are operated by the family-owned, transnational conglomerate Grupo Mexico, which acquired the mine for pennies on the dollar during the privatization of Mexico's state enterprises in the 1990s. Grupo Mexico also ended up owning several of Mexico's railroads, as well as copper mines in Peru, and it recently bought the bankrupt ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Co.), which has mine and smelter properties in Arizona. Cananea is just 30 miles south of the Arizona border.

Like other transnational corporations in the global economy, Grupo Mexico has been on a relentless drive to reduce production costs, including weakening or eliminating labor unions, to boost corporate profits. Two years ago, Grupo Mexico began sustained attempts to replace unionized mine workers in Cananea with lower-cost, non-union contractor employees.

When Local 65 of the Mexican Miners union--one of the oldest and strongest in Mexico--refused to allow non-union maintenance and housekeeping contract employees into the mine, Grupo Mexico literally disassembled the dust collectors in the multi-building Concentrator Department and piled the duct work on the ground next to Area 23, one of the enclosed buildings processing the copper coming from the open-pit mine.

From that time forward, there has been a contest of wills between Grupo Mexico and the miners over how much silica-containing ore dust the mine workers are willing to breathe--given that the company disconnected the local ventilation systems--and how important it is to the miners to prevent their union from being steadily eaten away by increasing numbers of non-union contract employees. Some 400 contract workers already are on the job along with 1,200 unionized mine workers.

Over the last 2 years, the mine's concentrator buildings have been filled with dense clouds of rock dust, forming snowdrift-sized piles of settled dust two to three feet high through the plants. A bulk sample of the accumulated dust taken in October 2007 and sent to an AIHA-accredited laboratory in the United States found the dust was 23 percent crystalline silica, with 50 percent of particles in the respirable range of less than 10 microns in diameter.

Finally, in July 2007, the miners union struck the Cananea mine over health and safety issues, foremost among them being hazardous exposures to silica, a known human carcinogen and the cause of debilitating and usually fatal silicosis. The union miners also were reacting to an attempt by Grupo Mexico to establish a rival, company-friendly union (with only 85 members compared to the historic union's 1,200 members) as the sole legal union on site.

When the Cananea miners went on strike on July 30, the United Steel Workers (USW) union in the United States launched a solidarity campaign. The USW represents copper miners in Arizona working for ASARCO, now owned by Grupo Mexico, and, "thinking globally," has tried to build bridges to both the Mexican and Peruvian miners unions as all three unions have members employed by Grupo Mexico.

The Peruvian miners union also has conducted several strikes at Grupo Mexico-owned facilities over the last year, in part in response to Grupo Mexico's attempt to impose 12-hour shifts, instead of 8-hour days, on the mines. The unions consider 12-hour shifts in mining operations to be a serious safety hazard due to accidents caused by worker fatigue.

Reaching Out for Help

In September 2007, USW passed along to the all-volunteer Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network (MHSSN) a request from Local 65 of the Mexican Miners union for an independent evaluation of the working conditions in the Cananea mine and the health status of the mine workers. …