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Chilean miners on surface 'also trapped,' by company's financial woes

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
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Above ground, miners also feel trapped
  • Roughly 300 employees work at the San Esteban mine in Chile that suffered a cave-in
  • The company is reportedly in dire financial straits
  • Trapped miners have been guaranteed their pay
  • Workers say they don't know when they will be paid next

Copiapo, Chile (CNN) -- It's 7:55 a.m. and miner Javier Avarca arrives in the early morning chill to the San Jose mine in Chile to begin a 12-hour shift.

A 10-year veteran of the mine, Avarca and a handful of other men are not there to extract gold and copper. That was their old job until the collapse of the mine finished that work and put the mine's owner, the San Esteban Mining Co., in financial peril.

Instead, the crew has come to help pull 33 of their colleagues from the ground, who have been trapped in the mine's depths for 51 days. And even though Avarca and the other miners clock in on their way to the mine, they say they have no guarantee they will be paid.

The company has paid its workers' salaries for August and half of September. Miners above ground say it missed a promised bonus last week, and that they have no guarantee they will be paid going forward.

"We may be free," Avarca said, "but we are also trapped. Our hands are tied. You go to bed worrying what happens tomorrow, how will this all play out? How will you pay what you owe at the end of the month?"

Since the walls of the mine came crashing down, and 17 days later when all the missing miners were found alive and buried deep underground, the attention of the world has been focused on the effort to rescue the trapped men.

Read about Saturday's developments in mine rescue efforts

The buried miners have set a record for the most time anyone has survived trapped in a collapsed mine. NASA isolation experts say they plan to study the men's ordeal. A movie and books are reportedly in the works.

A veteran of the San Jose mine, Javier Arvarca is helping with the operation to rescue the 33 trapped miners.
A veteran of the San Jose mine, Javier Arvarca is helping with the operation to rescue the 33 trapped miners.

Much less attention has been given to the 300 or so other mine employees whose lives were also upended by the cave-in.

Even before the collapse, miners say the San Esteban Mining Co. was in dire financial straits. Chilean government officials said since the cave-in the company's creditors have come looking for repayment and that the government itself will seek to be repaid for the huge sums spent to rescue the trapped miners.

The mine's assets were frozen Friday by a court in Santiago, AFP reported, while a mediator for San Esteban's creditors calculates what the company is worth. The San Esteban Mining Company did not return repeated CNN calls for comment.

Unlike employees above ground, the trapped miners are guaranteed to be paid.

Alejandro Pino, spokesman for the Association for the Rescue and Care of the Trapped Miners, an umbrella group of state and mine organizations responsible for the 33 miners' well-being, said the men underground will continue to receive their salaries.

Pino said Chilean workplace laws guarantee the men's salaries during the rescue. All 33 miners have signed documents -- delivered to mine's depths by a pulley system -- designating who in their families they want to receive their salaries during their confinement.

It's not clear how we will earn a living. We have kids in school, bills that need to be paid. It's weighing very heavily on us.
--Javier Avarca, miner

The miners underground have continued to work, helping to coordinate some of the drilling from below. Eventually, they will clear tons of rock that will fall into the mine from the excavation effort.

But there is little the government can do, Pino said, for the mine's other employees. "We can't help with this," he said. "The law doesn't permit us to intervene. They have to figure it out by other processes."

That could mean a lengthy court fight -- a thought that mine welder Mario Salazar dreads.

"We aren't asking for anyone to give us anything," he said. "We just want to be paid a severance, the money we are owed for our years of service and to be released from working for the company."

To be released from their contract with the mining company would be crucial, Salazar said. If they simply begin working somewhere else, he said, the mine could claim they do not owe them any form of severance. But as they wait for a resolution, Salazar doubts he and the other miners will be paid their salaries going forward.

On Wednesday, a group of miners returned to the San Esteban mine to protest, demanding the government weigh in on the question of their salaries. Miners said they have not received a promised bonus for Chile's Independence Day and have been given no indication they would be paid again at the end of the month.

"It's not clear how we will earn a living," miner Avarca said as he joined the protest. "We have kids in school, bills that need to be paid. It's weighing very heavily on us."

The miners are caught in a "Catch-22," said Andrew King, a national coordinator from the United Steelworkers union, who came to Chile to advise the workers. If they find work elsewhere they could be giving up their rights to a claim against San Esteban. But in the meantime there is no guarantee they will receive any payment from the financially-strapped company.

"Eventually many of these men will have to start over," King said, "with the stigma of coming from the San Jose mine."

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