Strike at Chile’s Escondida drags on; unions threaten

ANTOFAGASTA, Chile, July 24 (Reuters) – A strike at Chile’s Escondida, the world’s biggest copper mine, entered a third day on Sunday with no sign of a deal to end a protest that unions are threatening to extend across the country.

Escondida union leader Roberto Arriagada said mine owner BHP Billiton (BHP.AX)(BLT.L) had refused to resume talks to increase bonuses, calling the company’s decision “a huge mistake that will lead to nationwide protests.”

Leaders representing about 27,000 workers at state-run Codelco and privately owned mines threatened on Sunday to carry out nationwide protests to support Escondida strikers.

“If anyone’s fired (at Escondida) we’ll act as a single force,” Raimundo Espinoza, head of Codelco’s labor federation, said in a joint briefing with Escondida union leaders.

Chile’s strict labor laws let companies fire workers who put down tools outside the scheduled contract talks. Escondida settled a 44-month contract with workers in 2009.

Further labor unrest in Chile, the world’s No. 1 copper producer, could tarnish its image as one of the region’s most stable investment destinations and hit global supply that has already suffered strikes and bad weather this year.

A general strike by Codelco workers on July 11 to protest company reforms — their first nationwide walkout in nearly 20 years — has emboldened other Chilean miners to increase pay demands as prices of the metal hover near record highs.

Escondida workers are demanding an $11,000 bonus linked to BHP’s earnings to compensate for a drop in their annual production compensation.

Union leaders said operations at the mine and its main export port, Coloso, had been completely paralyzed since the stoppage began late on Thursday.

“(Copper) stocks are at critical levels. The mine should declare force majeure on shipments this week,” union leader Marcelo Tapia said.

He said heavy rains that halted extraction earlier in July had reduced stocks.

A BHP official was not immediately available to comment.

Escondida, which produces nearly 7 percent of the world’s mined copper, could stand to lose production of about 3,000 tonnes per day during the strike. Production at the mine has fallen 26 percent since a record 1.48 million tonnes in 2007.
http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/07/24/chile-escondida-strike-idUSN1E76N06Z20110724

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