Colombia's Cerrejon, union reach last-minute deal to avoid strike

BOGOTA, Feb 8 (Reuters) – The largest union at Colombia's top coal mine Cerrejon has reached an 11th-hour salary and benefits deal with the company, avoiding a strike, the union said on Thursday.

Cerrejon accounts for 37 percent of Colombia's coal output, the world's fifth-largest exporter of the mineral, and a strike likely would have affected exports.

The two sides had returned to talks after a large majority of members of the Sintracarbon union backed a strike. In a vote last week 3,399 union members voted for a stoppage and 19 for a tribunal, while 17 votes were void or blank.

Cerrejon, equally owned by BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Glencore, has agreed to a salary increase of 6.1 percent for this year, the union said. Salaries will rise again in 2019 by at least 5 percent and the company also will increase education and housing benefits.

The company was not immediately available to comment.

The union originally demanded a 12 percent increase.

"It's a comprehensive deal that will benefit workers," Sintracarbon leader Aldo Amaya, told Reuters, adding the union is looking over final details with the company before the accord is signed.

The union says it represents some 4,000 of the company's 5,000 workers.

Production and exports at Cerrejon fell for a third straight year in 2017, when it mined 31.7 million tonnes of coal, as heavy rainfall affected operations, the owners said this month.

The last strike at Cerrejon, which produces coal at its open pit mine in northern La Guajira province, was in February 2013 and lasted 32 days.

Coal is Colombia's second most important export after oil.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Trott)