ANTOFAGASTA, Chile, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Workers gearing up for what could be a prolonged strike at the world’s leading copper mine, BHP Billiton’s Escondida, are stockpiling rations and supplies to survive the searing sun and bone-chilling nights of Chile’s northern high-desert.
Dozens of colorful tents were splayed out near the entrance of the giant mine, 3,100 meters above sea level in the unforgiving Atacama desert. Workers have also brought porta-potties and stored food and provisions for about two months.
Workers say they have set aside some 250 million pesos ($387,000) for logistical purposes and to restock if needed.
The walkout began on Thursday morning as the company and union remained at loggerheads over a salary and benefits package.
Copper prices have rallied to near seven-year highs as the strike has fueled fears about global supplies of the metal used in everything from construction to telecommunications. Compounding the worries, labor issues have also prompted the world’s second-largest copper mine in Indonesia to say it would scale back activities.
Chile’s 2,500-member No. 1 Escondida union has complained that BHP wants to cut worker benefits and has not committed to a benefits scheme that places new and longtime workers on equal footing, something the union considers essential.
“Management wants to step all over the union, it wants to destroy it,” said Patricio Tapia, the union president who easily won reelection last year.
Escondida, which produced 1.15 million tonnes of copper in 2015 or about 6 percent of the world’s total, has seen its share of labor conflicts. About a decade ago workers staged a 26-day strike that forced the global miner to declare force majeure on copper shipments. A labor conflict in 2011 paralyzed the mine for two weeks.
“We’re a lot more organized than the last (strike). We’re angry because the company is making a mockery of us, so if we need to be here 30 or 40 days, so be it,” said a miner, who preferred not to be named.
Labor negotiations at Escondida are seen as a benchmark for the industry at large. The last wage talks were four years ago, when copper prices were near $8,300 per tonne, 42 percent higher than current prices. Then, the company offered each worker a bonus worth some $49,000, the highest ever offered in Chile’s mining industry.
Now, under the shadow of a large Chilean flag and flanked by portraits of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, unionized workers are preparing for a new fight.
”We don’t adhere to any political stripe, we’re only trying to defend our rights. They can’t take away everything we’ve already won, said Tapia, donning a pair work gloves.
Workers were hauling cooking utensils, gas cylinders, planks of wood, tents and other materials up to the middle of an otherwise barren landscape, building a makeshift camp.
BHP Billiton has said it planned to halt production during the strike since it could not guarantee the safety of the 80 workers the government had authorized to remain at the mine to perform “critical duties”, such as equipment upkeep and adherence to environmental protocols.
$1 = 644.9200 Chilean pesos Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Christian Plumb and David Gregorio