Workers at Codelco threaten strike over lack of investment at smelter

Ventanas copper smelter. Image from Codelco.

Workers at Chilean state-owned Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, threatened on Tuesday to go on a company-wide strike due to a lack of investment at the mining firm’s troubled Ventanas smelter and refinery.

Codelco said last week it paused operations at its Ventanas smelter and refinery to carry out maintenance after authorities declared an environmental emergency in the region earlier in the week.

Amador Pantoja, president of the Federation of Copper Workers (FTC), which groups the company’s unions, told Reuters that union leadership would wait for the results of a congressional session on Codelco investments before outlining any labor action.

“We can’t say with certainty that we are going to strike … but it is the tool that we have left in case things really do not change,” Pantoja said.

Codelco said in a statement that the unit will remain shut to complete maintenance work, to implement operational changes outlined by the environmental regulator and until weather conditions allow it to safely restart.

“This environmental problem is limited to the operation of Ventanas smelter and does not affect the division’s other processes, such as the refinery (which complies with all the environmental standards) or the other Codelco smelters,” Codelco said.

Pantoja said that Ventanas needs a $50 million investment to comply with environmental standards.

Earlier this month, Chile’s environmental regulator ordered provisional measures for Codelco and AES Chile, a power company, after dozens of people in the towns of Quintero and Puchuncavi in central Chile showed signs of poisoning from sulfur dioxide emissions.

(By Fabian Cambero and Anthony Esposito; Editing by Chris Reese and Jacqueline Wong)

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