Carlos Portales and post-Covid-19 labor relations: “It is not possible to face the processes of operational, technological and labor transformation in conditions of sustainability, with relationships marked by verticality, short-term and conflict”

The academic of the Universidad Católica analyzed for Cesco the state of labor relations in mining, with emphasis on the measures adopted to contain the contagion by Covid-19, and the impact of these changes in the medium and long term, which will make it necessary a labor dialogue within companies to face a scenario that is here to stay.

For the professor at the School of Administration of the Universidad Católica and director of DataLab, Carlos Portales, mining is perhaps the area that was best prepared to face the most important health crisis that Chile has had to face in the last 100 years. This, due to the high-security standards that have been adopted in the sector.

“It is important to understand that, together with the safety and health measures that are being adopted, the productivity challenges in the pre-pandemic mining sector are still fully in force. In order to close these gaps, it is necessary to approach training and capacity development in a very different way from what has been done so far,” says Portales in a comprehensive analysis entitled “Pandemic, crisis management and labor relations: present and future of Chilean mining.”

Among the measures that have been taken are those of sanitizing workspaces, carrying out mass rapid tests, and delivering protective equipment, among many others. To this is added the decrease in staffing – which reaches 35% on average – to ensure physical distance, operating mainly with those who carry out essential tasks for production; and, in parallel, the irruption of remote work for those positions that can exercise it, it has allowed contagion to be contained and operational continuity maintained. But for Portales, this has not been without cost.

“The impact is being felt by workers, particularly operators and maintainers and areas of support for the operation who are seeing their health compromised, as they are required to extend their working hours,” explains the expert. With the pandemic, companies have had to change shifts from 3×3 or 4×4 to 7×7 or 14×14. “It is necessary to address in greater depth the effects it produces on families since this factor can be an obstacle in the incorporation of women, a challenge in the short, medium and long term of this industry.”

The academic highlights the battery of measures adopted by the vast majority of companies and their timely implementation. “The mining industry, perhaps like no other productive activity in the country, was well prepared to face this pandemic. Finally, this is a health and safety crisis, issues in which mining has been at the forefront for several decades.”

The technological irruption

Historically, the local mining sector has been characterized by being conservative when integrating new technologies to improve operational performance. However, this has been changing in recent years, given the pressure to improve production performance.

This adoption of new technologies has been further accelerated by the pandemic. “The sector is experiencing a true epiphany, discovering that, with the equipment and instruments available today and a smaller number of on-site personnel, particularly at supervisory levels, their production volumes have not decreased.”

In this context, Portales envisions that, in the not- too- distant future, the national mining industry will be supported by technology-intensive operating models and more permanently adjusted staff, with displacement and retraining of workers towards the design, implementation and management of new technologies. “This finding must also be associated with the decrease in the effects of work on the workers’ families, which would result in greater subjective well-being of the worker, and probably their commitment and productivity, given the reduction of the work-family conflict that shift work entails.”

A new way of relating

The measures taken to contain the spread of Covid-19 are here to stay. This is the opinion of the labor expert, who considers that these transformations will require complex processes of change that affect diverse interests. “When the effects of the pandemic begin to subside, the pause and the focus of health that prevails today will be left behind and we will resume the path of more structural decisions that were already taking shape before Covid-19 took over the stage. The profound changes that are projected will undoubtedly lead to acute tensions if dialogue formulas are not installed that allow co-building a path of productive development, but also human, with the various stakeholders of the industry.”

“It is not enough to deal only with short-term productivity, but must aim at a balance between the economic and the sustainable and sustainable development of this industry,” says the expert, adding that “when the curtain begins to rise, the political and social scenarios, exacerbated by the abrupt drop in economic activity at a general level, will once again put intense pressure on mining activity. And it cannot stay on the sidelines.”

In this regard, Portales points out that there is a perception by civil society that the mining sector and its actors are privileged, living a very different reality from that experienced by the rest of Chileans. “If mining wants to carry out the transformations it requires, it must insert itself better on the national scene”, says the academic. “Such changes will be severely hampered if relationships that respect different interests are not generated, but simultaneously seek spaces for collaboration and joint construction of shared value. For this, a genuine and transparent dialogue between all the actors is necessary, so that shared diagnoses are generated, possible scenarios to be reached and paths of solution built in an integrated manner”.

In this sense, Portales explains that Datalab carries out a mining Labor Relations Index (IRL) and that it analyzes 16 companies in the sector, which shows an item with labor relations between employers, unions and workers, with mainly paternalistic features. “These are links where, although there is cordiality (with certain exceptions, clearly), the breadth and depth of the work agenda between these actors is quite limited, limiting itself only to hygiene and economic issues in the short term. In recent times, paternalism from employers towards union organizations has been acquiring overtones of transactionality, especially with the arrival of new union leaderships that push for greater demands and executive teams with very vertical views of labor relations that hinder a constructive dialogue with a long-term vision”.

Regarding trust in employer and worker ties, it is weakened and mining companies obtain, on average, 49.9 points on a scale of 0 to 100, ranking at an Insufficient level (less than 55 points) 80% of them. “To achieve greater organizational confidence, it is necessary to promote specific behaviors that increase the credibility of each other. This is a task whose initiative is in the hands of the companies’ administrations”.

The academic explains that executive teams need to share information and manage it transparently, seek joint diagnoses with their union organizations in the face of challenges, and support the training of highly professional union leaders, in addition to developing capacities to have difficult conversations.

For their part, the unions, although diverse, show a certain concentration on a transactional logic, oriented rather to the short term with primarily economic interests and demands and a propensity to conflict to defend their points. Portales explains that there is also another group that is oriented to social welfare, seeking to provide solutions to specific issues and focused on the short-term monetary benefits of its partners. “There are, however, also unions that are located in a logic of entrepreneurship or co-construction of value, with a long-term perspective, and broader agendas, which have achieved dialogues on relevant issues, such as operational and technological innovations that have allowed them to face this crisis, with the administration”.

In conclusion, Portales points out that “it is not possible to face the processes of operational, technological and labor transformation in conditions of sustainability with relationships marked by verticality, short-term and conflict.” And he adds that “it is necessary to move towards co-construction relationships of shared value animated by a genuine interest of the parties to cooperate and collaborate with other actors in pursuit of a common future, despite the conflicting interests that may exist”.

“Broader conversations should be promoted with multidimensional agendas that include long-term themes, so that a double benefit is achieved: greater productivity and, at the same time, comprehensive human development,” says the expert. “That is the only possible way to advance the processes of change that mining companies require, distributing the benefits of the activity fairly among the actors and achieving the necessary legitimacy in each of the steps that are taken,” he concludes.