Latin America & Caribbean

Chile's Pinera 'to protect mine safety whistleblowers'

Chile's President Sebastian Pinera has vowed to protect workers who draw attention to unsafe work practices.

Speaking to BBC's HARDtalk programme, Mr Pinera said Chile would do "whatever is necessary to have a more secure mining industry".

Mr Pinera, whose international profile has been boosted by the dramatic rescue of 33 miners, is currently in London.

He will later meet the Queen and Prime Minister David Cameron and present them with rocks taken from inside the mine.

Mr Pinera, who arrived in London on Saturday, was speaking less than a week after all 33 miners were safely rescued from the San Jose mine.

He told the BBC's HARDtalk programme that during the 17 days before the miners were located in the shelter 700m (2,300ft) underground, he had always believed they would be rescued.

"I had a kind of inner voice that told me all the time they are alive," he said.

When asked if the rescue had been a miracle, Mr Pinera said he believed it was "not only human effort" that had achieved the end result.

"I won't say it was a miracle, but I will say that we got some very important help," he said.

'Fear culture over'

The men were trapped in the San Jose gold and copper mine by a rockfall on 5 August.

Mr Pinera placed the blame for the accident on the mine's owners, saying they had failed to follow regulations.

But he said the government also "might have been negligent in the sense that it didn't make sure the regulations were being fulfilled".

The San Esteban mining firm - which is close to being declared bankrupt because of the cost of the rescue - has previously denied accusations that it ignored safety guidelines.

There has also been criticism from some of the mine workers that there was a culture of fear at the pit, with miners unwilling to speak out over safety concerns because they were afraid of losing their jobs.

Trade unions have been pressing Mr Pinera to ratify International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 176, which commits governments to enforcing safety regulations and offering protection for any miner who raises safety concerns.

Mr Pinera said his country would ratify the convention and that if there was a culture of fear it was over.

"We have initiated a country effort to create a new treatment in terms of how to protect the lives, integrity, dignity and health of our workers," he said.

"If we want to be a developed country, we need to develop first world standards."

He said the government "cannot guarantee that we will not have accidents in the future, but we can guarantee that we will do whatever is necessary to have a more secure mining industry".

Mr Pinera rejected criticisms of his leadership style from some government colleagues, and suggestions that he was unfairly capitalising on the rescue for his own political gain.

He said he had been involved in the operation even before the miners were found to be alive and that "a real leader has to be hands on, committed, with passion".

Rock gifts

The president said the rescue operation had also caused him to reaffirm his commitment to reducing poverty levels.

Image caption Sir Alex Ferguson invited all the miners to attend a game at Old Trafford

"I am now much more committed to the goals of our government and I am much more convinced that we can achieve that," he said.

Later on Monday, Mr Pinera will visit the Queen at Buckingham Palace and hold talks with David Cameron.

He said he would present them both with rocks which the miners brought up with them from the mine, when they left in the escape capsule last week.

On Sunday, Mr Pinera visited sights in London, including the Cabinet War Rooms, from where Winston Churchill led the UK during World War II.

He also met the manager of Manchester United Football Club, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Sir Alex gave Mr Pinera a signed football shirt and invited all the rescued miners to attend a match at Old Trafford.

Also on Sunday, some of the miners, along with their friends and relatives, attended a private mass of thanksgiving at the San Jose mine.

All the miners are in good health and have asked the media to allow them to recover from their ordeal in private.

About 50 mine workers took part in a protest at the site, demanding compensation for the wages they have not been able to earn since the mine was shut down on 5 August.

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