SANTIAGO – The first time Karen Requena entered the cafeteria at BHP Billiton’s massive Escondida mining operation in northern Chile, she couldn’t help feeling countless eyes fixed on her body as she walked across the vast hall. “It can’t get worse than that,” she thought. Then as Requena looked for a place to sit, the noise started. Thousands of men began banging their knives and forks against their plates. The pace of the deafening clattering picked up as she searched for an empty seat.
That’s how it went day in and day out at the world’s largest copper mine. It was 2012, and Requena was working 10-day shifts as an Escondida safety officer for BHP Billiton contractor Villatol. Soon she began eating in her room alone.
Five years later, Soledad Caceres, another safety worker, witnessed an almost identical scene in the cafeteria of Antofagasta Plc’s Zaldivar mine. Caceres relayed what she had witnessed to her employer, as well as to Antofagasta management. Officials brushed off her complaint, she says. Three months later, the contractor she worked for, Rentalmin, declined to renew her contract. She was later told by one of her former co-workers that her comment was seen by Rentalmin management as “out of place,” Caceres says. “Men think women must adapt because it’s still their world,” she says. “If you complain, then you’re troublesome, you’re crazy.”
The experiences Requena and Caceres say they’ve endured are not isolated events. Women are routinely subjected to demeaning behavior and worse, according to Bloomberg interviews with more than a dozen current and former female employees as well as academic research. A study conducted in 2016 for the Ministry of Mining surveyed 603 women and found that more than 40 percent had heard cutting jokes, cat-calling and wolf-whistling. About 20% had been groped, and 7% had received proposals to have intimate relations.
BHP retains a third party that anyone can use to lodge complaints confidentially, the company says in a written statement. “Any complaints of sexual connotation that violate someone’s dignity are addressed by the company immediately,” the statement continues. “We apply special procedures of investigation, the complaint is given priority and we assign additional resources to speed it up.”
Antofagasta has no knowledge of harassing behavior in cafeterias at any of its operations, according to a spokesperson. “If it ever happened, it was an isolated case,” says Rene Aguilar, vice president of corporate affairs and sustainability. Cases of gender discrimination and harassment brought to light through the company’s anonymous reporting system are rare, he says. “We have been very clear that such behavior will never be acceptable in our company.”
Antofagasta is training 400 executives in inclusive leadership and unconscious bias. It participates in a gender-equality initiative with the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank, while five of its supervisors are part of Proyecto Promociona, a program to help women break through the glass ceiling.
Villatol, the subcontractor that employed Requena at Escondida, could not be reached for comment. Rentalmin, the company Caceres worked for at Zaldivar, declined several requests for comment.
Of all the workplaces on Earth, mines are and always have been notoriously inhospitable to women, and nowhere has this been more true than in Chile, where popular macho culture has long held that the mere presence of a woman in a mine shaft would bring bad luck. Until 1996, women were banned by law from working underground. In the past two decades, the government has made efforts to bring change, and corporations have responded by pledging to hire women and better educate their still predominately male employees. While progress has been made, mines remain perilous places for female workers.
Mining is by far Chile’s largest industry, accounting for about 10% of the country’s gross domestic product and more than half of the country’s exports. Women now make up about 8 percent of the workforce. By comparison, in Canada, just under 20% of mining industry workers are women.
“I would like to see a faster incorporation of women,” says Chile’s Mining Minister Baldo Prokurica, who adds that some companies find “women are less prone to suffer accidents, and machines operated by women at the mines require less maintenance.”
Advances in technology should help. Modern-day mining is no longer the physically taxing job it once was. Driving a giant 550-ton truck, these days outfitted with power steering and air conditioning, doesn’t require much more effort than driving a car. “You can steer the truck with your little finger,” says Gustavo Tapia, president of the Mining Federation group of unions. And as automated excavators and other heavy machinery slowly replace traditional mining work, operations can be controlled and monitored from comfortable workstations hundreds of miles away from the mine pit. The job comes with excellent family health care and pays about $23,500 per year on average, almost twice the average income in Chile.
Mining companies around the globe are joining an industrywide push for gender equality and launching initiatives to increase the proportion of women working in mine pits, smelters and refineries. BHP has vowed to achieve gender parity in all its operations around the globe by 2025, Freeport-McMoRan has set a 15% target of female employees, while Antofagasta recently appointed women to the boards of all its mines. In Chile, government-controlled mines have a mixed record. Codelco is attempting to hire more women, and at one of its mining operations it has succeeded: At Gabriela Mistral, women make up 24% of employees. Still, the company has no female board members or executives.
Codelco is ramping up efforts to increase female participation in its mines, says Daniel Sierra, vice president of human resources, in an emailed response to questions. The company has been awarded government-backed certification for gender equality in the workplace in six of its 10 mining operations and office locations. Codelco now has systems in place to deal with violence and harassment, including a hotline women can call at any time, and is constantly working to improve them, according to Sierra.
“The prohibition for women to work in underground mining only ended in 1996, and change has been slow,” Sierra says. “The culture was mainly masculine, and the industry didn’t have the infrastructure” to effectively hire more women.
One woman, who asked to be identified only as Sara, began working in 2014 at Codelco’s Chuquicamata smelter in the Antofagasta region. Then a 22-year-old single mother, Sara remembers going home in tears during her first month on the job. She didn’t have work clothes that fit her size, female toilets were a half-hour walk away and, after showering, she had to towel off in changing rooms with no curtains or locked doors. Male colleagues made kissing sounds on the radio, and company bus drivers refused her rides at the end of her shift. Although all of these issues have since been rectified, “many men still insist that we shouldn’t be there because [they say] our hair and nails get damaged and because the job is very physical,” Sara says. In Sara’s case, the steady work, good pay and health benefits outweigh the hassles, and she continues to work at the mine.
For years, Carla Rojas worked as a risk prevention officer at several mines, examining dozens of such complaints. Then one day she became a victim herself. On her first day as a contractor at BHP’s Escondida mine, she was chosen randomly to take a drug test. At the infirmary, an all-male team of nurses giggled when they told her she would have to leave the bathroom door open as she urinated to make sure she didn’t cheat. “That was the start of a string of events that looked absolutely abnormal to me but that seemed normal to everyone at the mines,” Rojas says. “That’s when I realized harassment towards women was widespread and normalized.”
Rojas quit her job in 2015 and entered an academic program at the University of Chile in Santiago to investigate the extent of the problem. Today she is a professor at the university and consults with mining companies on diversity issues; she authored the 2016 study for the government.
When Rojas began her academic career, she set out on a deep-dive study of women’s conditions at mines throughout the country. She interviewed nearly 1 000 people, mostly women, and concluded that working in mines takes a toll on their mental health. Rojas was outraged yet not altogether surprised by what she found. One contract worker was subjected to constant bullying. She would just hold her tongue and try to ignore her tormentors. Then someone defecated in her bedroom and wrote threatening messages on her mirror. She quit her job though never lodged a formal complaint, Rojas, says. “There’s a double standard where companies say they’re interested in bringing in more women,” she says. “Men don’t harass women because of their culture, but because they can, because the situation allows it.”