Thousands of workers begin strike at world’s biggest copper mine

Thousands of workers begin strike at world’s biggest copper mine

Escondida pit at night. (Source: BHP Billiton)

Close to 2,800 miners at Chile's Escondida, the world's biggest copper mine, began a 24-hour “warning” strike on Monday morning as they seek to negotiate better working conditions, Publimetro reports (in Spanish).

Workers belonging to the Sindicato No. 1 union said if talks with the mine owners, BHP Billiton (ASX:BHP) and Rio Tinto (LON:RIO), don’t bear fruit, they’ll stage an indefinite stoppage beginning Wednesday morning.

The 1.2 million tonnes a year operation, located in Chile's Atacama Desert, also provides around 1,900 contract workers with full time jobs.

The news did not affect the red metal prices. London copper futures, in fact, fell to their weakest level in months, losing 1.46% to trade at $6,735 a tonne by 0648 GMT. Earlier they had fallen falling to $6,722.50, the lowest since June.

So far this year copper prices have tumbled more than 8%.

Escondida’s Sindicato No. 1 union carried out a similar 24-hour stoppage over pay and conditions last year. That dispute was quickly settled, but during a two-week strike in the summer of 2011 output of more than 40,000 tonnes of copper was lost, forcing operator BHP to declare force majeure.

News of the strike comes not long after BHP said the mine could substantially increase total output next year to 1.27 million tonnes.

The mine which also produces gold and silver as by-products plays a key role in the Chilean economy, accounting for about for 2.5% of the country's gross domestic product. According to Rio Tinto’s website, in 2012 the mine generated 5% of global copper production and around 15% of the South American nation output.