Thousands of copper workers have fallen ill in Chile

Image courtesy of Codelco.

It’s no coincidence that global copper prices and Chilean Covid-19 cases are rising together.

Chile, which accounts for more than a quarter of global supply, is battling to maintain output levels as more workers fall ill amid a nationwide surge of infections.

Mines have been attempting to keep their workers safe without forgoing too much output by postponing non-essential activities such as maintenance and construction work. Fewer workers on site mean less risk of infection.

But cases keep rising, and unions and local politicians are calling for tighter restrictions. With Chilean supply risk growing at a time of recovering Chinese demand, prices have all but wiped out losses for the year as the market tightens and some analysts predict an annual deficit.

At Codelco, for example, 2,843 workers have been diagnosed with the disease as of July 5, according to data compiled by the Federation of Copper Workers union.

To be sure, that’s still a small fraction of the state-owned company’s total workforce of 70,000-plus, including contract workers. But it’s more significant as a percentage given mines are already operating with skeleton crews. While Chile has managed to reduce the number of daily infections nationally, cases continue to grow in some key mining areas.

Codelco’s hardest hit mines are El Teniente and Chuquicamata, with 1,044 and 636 cases, respectively, according to the union.

The state behemoth has halted development projects at El Teniente, its largest mine, adding to other curtailments and shift-pattern changes. At Chuquicamata, Codelco suspended smelting and sharply reduced refining. BHP Group announced plans last week to scale back its Cerro Colorado mine.

While Chile managed to increase copper export revenue in June, that may be more about rallying prices than higher volume. June production will be released in late July.

MineCasesImpact2019 Output (tons)OwnershipSource
Escondida20960-70% on-site workforce1,187,800BHPCompany; As of June 22
CollahuasiN/A60% on-site workforce
Decreased transport from Calama, Santiago, Copiago
565,400Glencore, Anglo-American, Mitsui & CoCompany
El Teniente1,04414×14 shifts;
Construction work halted
459,700CodelcoCompany, Federation of Copper Workers; As of July 5
Chuquicamata636Local-only staffing;
7×7 shifts;
Smelter halted;
Refinery slowed
385,309CodelcoCompany, Federation of Copper Workers; As of July 5
Los PelambresN/A65% on-site workforce;
Expect a 2% decrease in production
375,900AntofagastaCompany
Spence59No longer using Calama Airport193,400BHPCompany; As of June 22
Los Bronces, El Soldado, Chagres smelter, Las Tortolas19050% on-site workforce389,200Anglo AmericanCompany; As of June

(By Jackie Davalos)

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