Striking Escondida copper workers stand firm as pressure builds
2017-03-08 14:23:51   source:

The union leading a 26-day-old strike at the Escondida copper mine in northern Chile, the world’s largest, vowed Monday to continue with the protest for as long as it takes, even as pressure builds for them to end the standoff.

“We have said we will strike for 60 days or longer,” No. 1 Workers Union spokesman Carlos Allendes told journalists in Santiago Monday.

The strike, which has halted production at the open pit operation, is thought to have cost the BHP Billiton-controlled mine more than 100,000 mt in copper production and more than $500 million in lost revenue.

But the two sides have not met for more than a few hours since the strike began as they clash over what issues should under negotiation.

The union is refusing to open talks with the company until management agrees to remove three issues from the table: the removal of benefits; changes to workers’ rest times; and different conditions for new employees.

Allendes was in Santiago Monday to meet with government authorities and politicians to explain the union’s position.

Left-wing presidential candidate Senator Alejandro Guillier condemned the company’s proposal as discriminatory after meeting with union officials Monday.

But Allendes said that the union was not being inflexible.

“If the company agree to these conditions, then it should be quite quick to reach a solution,” Allendes said, adding that a Chilean Peso 25 million ($38,000) signing bonus demanded by the union is negotiable.

The company previously offered workers a Chilean Peso 8 million bonus and no pay rise.

The 2,500 workers striking workers, among the best paid in Chile’s mining industry, have come under criticism for putting the country’s economy at risk.

Escondida, which produces almost a fifth of Chile’s copper, is so large that economists fear a strike could scupper the country’s economy just as it is coming out of a prolonged period of lackluster growth.

Figures published Monday by the country’s central bank showed the economy grew by 1.7% in the 12 months to January. But Finance Minister Rodrigo Valdes has warned that figures for February, published in a month’s time, could show a contraction as the strike bites.

But Allendes dismissed the criticism, arguing it was Escondida’s intransigence that had forced workers to strike. “They have pushed us to this and it is up to them to resolve it,” he said.

The strike has now lasted longer than a 2006 protest at the mine, which ended after 26 days, although strikes at other Chilean copper mines have almost lasted twice as long.

Many strikes crumble after a month, when Chilean labor law allows companies to make individual offers to striking workers: if more than half accept then the strike is over.

Allendes said that the union was confident that workers shared its commitment to the issues at stake in the standoff.

“Our members know what it is at stake. There will be no strikebreaking,” he said.

BHP Billiton owns 57.5% of the Escondida mine. Rio Tinto and two Japanese companies own the balance of shares.

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