World’s top copper mine moves step closer to strike over wages

Escondida workers on strike in 2017. (Screenshot from CNN Chile Video)

Union leaders at Escondida are calling on workers to reject owner BHP Group’s final wage offer, raising the possibility of a strike at the world’s largest copper mine at a time of tight global supplies and high prices.

An offer delivered at the end of regular wage talks in Chile falls short of worker demands, with the company pushing for longer hours in a bid to boost productivity and profit, the union said in a statement Wednesday. The 2,330 members will vote on the offer through July 31.

A strike is “the only tool left to workers in this scenario to press for an urgent rectification in the way things are done by management,” the union said. “The responsibility to avoid a serious conflict is entirely in the hands of the transnational BHP.”

While Chilean labor rules give either side the option to seek mediation before a strike could begin, the union has a track record of following through: In 2017, it roiled the copper market with a 44-day stoppage. A disruption at a mine that last year churned out 1.2 million metric tons would tighten supplies of the metal used in wiring just as a global economic recovery pushes up demand.

High metal prices are prompting host nations to seek a bigger share of the mining windfall, with Chilean lawmakers discussing a royalty bill as part of a push to address lingering inequalities in the country. Mining companies are striving to keep their labor costs in check in a cyclical business and as ore quality deteriorates and prices of inputs start to rise.

[Click here for an interactive chart of copper prices]

While terms of the Escondida offer weren’t released, the union is demanding an additional bonus equivalent to 1% of dividends paid to the mine’s owners as recognition of sacrifices made by workers, especially during the pandemic.

“The offer proposed by the company improves current conditions and incorporates new benefits in matters highly valued by workers,” BHP said in a statement. “This was built based on conversations held with Union No. 1 and reflects the intention of the company to build an agreement that is mutually beneficial, based on dialog and mutual cooperation.”

(By Alejandra Salgado)

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