Strikers block BHP Billiton from restarting Escondida Mine

March 17, 2017

The prolonged strike at BHP Billiton’s Escondida copper mine in Chile entered a new phase when striking workers began blocking attempts by the company to renew operations at a key port nearby.

The strike has entered its sixth week and the two sides remain divided, so much so that the company announced that it would begin to resume operations after the 2,500-member Escondida No. 1 Union, which has been on strike since Feb. 9, turned down three offers to return to the negotiating table.

Reuters reported that the company would at first restart operations unrelated to the negotiations, before beginning some maintenance operations, and finally resuming copper production, which has been halted since workers walked off.

But the striking workers blocked access to Coloso, a BHP-controlled port near the city of Antofagasta used to export copper, when replacement workers tried to enter it on March 15 and the blockade continued on March 16.

The president of Escondida, a BHP representative, told a local newspaper that the company would insist on accessing the port, and later the mine itself, which is 170 miles southeast in Chile's high desert.

He said if the company could not restart all of its operations, a partial resumption was possible.

Under Chilean law, BHP was allowed to hire temporary workers 15 days after the strike started but said it would wait for 30 days to show its commitment to dialogue. The strike entered its 36th day on March 16.

The strike at Escondida, as well as stoppages at Freeport-McMoran Inc's Grasberg Mine in Indonesia and its Cerro Verde Mine in Peru have pushed up global copper prices amid supply concerns.

The union repeatedly has said it will not return to the table until BHP agrees not to trim benefits in the existing contract, not to make shift patterns more taxing, and to offer the same benefits to new workers as those already at the mine.

Escondida produced slightly more than 1 million tonnes of copper in 2016, making it the world's largest copper mine.

Rio Tinto and Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi Corp hold minority interests in the deposit.



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