| ANTOFAGASTA, Chile
ANTOFAGASTA, Chile Feb 9 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
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
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
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