A woman miner at the crushing plant in CODELCO's Pipa Norte mine. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

A woman miner at the crushing plant in CODELCO's Pipa Norte mine. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS


RANCAGUA, Chile, Apr 11 2013 (IPS) - Women are playing an increasingly important role in Chile’s mining industry, where little more than a decade ago they were not even allowed in the mines because of prejudice and superstitions.

Today a total of 18,000 women work in mining equivalent to 7.2 percent of the industry’s workforce. That proportion is expected to reach 10 percent in 2015.

But the state-owned Corporación del Cobre (CODELCO), the world’s top copper producer, has set itself a higher target: it wants one in five labour contracts this year to go to a woman. Programmes for reconciling family life and work, improving facilities and providing work training are being planned.

“Not much more than 10 years ago, women were not even permitted inside a mine. It wasn’t even a possibility – they weren’t allowed because they were thought to bring bad luck,” said Andrés León, human resources manager at CODELCO’s El Teniente mine.

But times have changed. “We have an ambitious goal of reaching 20 percent of women in our labour force, as operatives, heads of sections, in management and on the business side,” León told IPS.

“Some divisions are further behind, like ours at El Teniente, where women only make up six percent. But we want to reach at least 20 percent,” León said.

“We are convinced that women make a positive contribution to the work, specifically in the case of mining. And above and beyond their professional input, they contribute to a good atmosphere with the human touch and the formation of multi-disciplinary teams,” he said.
Mining is one of the pillars of the Chilean economy, representing 17.6 percent of GDP in 2012, when exports amounted to 47 billion dollars. Today it employs, directly or indirectly, nearly one million of the country’s 7.1 million workers.

Chile is the top world exporter of copper, exports of which earned 42.7 billion dollars last year, bringing in 7.5 billion dollars to the state coffers.

CODELCO’s plan to include more women on its payroll has led to an increase from five women at executive level and 121 in professional posts in 1998, to this year’s figures of 26 and 690 respectively.

At the same time, women are also making advances in leadership roles in trade unions.

Millaray Farías, head of process at the crushing plant at Pipa Norte, one of the eight deposits that make up El Teniente, admitted to IPS that it was not easy to work in the largest underground mine in the world.

“It’s a challenge because of the working conditions, the dust and the noise,” she said.

On a tour of the crushing plant, IPS witnessed the thick clouds of dust produced by the grinding of extracted ore and the loud noise of the machinery.

There is also the weight of the equipment each miner has to wear: helmet, lamp, belt with safety and emergency equipment and steal-toe work boots.

Farías, who came to the mine four years ago, moves along the tunnels located one-and-a-half kilometres below the surface. “In spite of the difficulties, I do get a lot of support from the people and the ‘old hands’,” she told IPS, using the mining jargon for those who work deep down in the mines.

However, the environment “is very machista” and at times “they have a hard time coping with a woman boss,” she said. “But they also look after us and we’re quite spoiled.”

In the smelting area, the situation is more difficult. Superintendent Juan Bobadilla said 17 women work in the division. But because of the high temperatures, they have not yet worked in the plant and furnaces. “We take very good care of them,” he told IPS.

In León’s view, “the care the men take of the women is very positive, it forges strong bonds, and at the same time it moderates masculine excesses, such as swearing.”

Nowadays “we have a significant number of women driving trucks or operating bulldozers and other machinery, taking the copper out of the earth and processing it to turn it into cathodes (the base product of copper for high-grade applications) that we sell and export,” he said.

As part of the effort to include more women, CODELCO and the government set up a training scheme through the National Training and Employment Service (SENCE).

The Mujer Minera (Women in Mining) programme has already trained 14 women to run equipment for mining processes in the Arica and Parinacota region in the extreme north of the country, on the borders with Peru and Bolivia.

“Many of the women who are now machinery operators, apart from the pride they feel in working for the largest copper producer in the world, are also earning five times more than they were making in other jobs,” León said.

“A large proportion of these women are heads of households, supporting their children on a single wage, and here at CODELCO they have the opportunity to give their families a better life,” he said.

At El Teniente and the other mines run by the state-owned company, measures are being implemented to support the work of women and their multi-functional role.

“We’ve started with the basics, like infrastructure, bathrooms, changing rooms and overalls for women. We’re taking the small steps first, then we’ll move on to the bigger ones,” León said.

But the main thing, he said, is providing more training so that more women come forward, because hiring women miners is “a win-win all round.”