LIMA (Reuters) - Workers at several big mines in Peru went on strike Monday and joined a nationwide walkout, hoping to pressure Congress to pass a bill that would give them a greater share of profits from sky-high metals prices.
The strike, which pushed global copper prices to a two-month high of $8,620 (4,326 pounds) per tonne, will test President Alan Garcia at a time he is losing sway in Congress. He has tried to persuade legislators to approve the labour law, but has so far failed.
Labourers downed tools at some big mines, but reported for work at others in Peru, the world’s leading silver producer and second-largest copper and zinc miner.
“Our demands are just and urgently needed, necessary for the mining sector,” said Luis Castillo, head of Peru’s largest federation of mining unions.
Mineral exports from Peru have helped fuel a six-year economic boom, but mine workers say they are not getting a fair share of the boom.
President Alan Garcia is facing demands to spread the wealth to workers and the poor, or risk losing support for his free-market policies at a time when left-wing parties are eyeing elections in 2011.
Workers were on strike at the Ilo smelter and Cuajone mine of Southern Copper, one of the world’s largest copper producers, union leader Arnaldo Oviedo said. But company officer Alberto Giles said production was barely affected and temporary workers were being used.
Labourers also walked out at Antamina, Peru’s biggest copper-zinc pit, owned by BHP Billiton and Xstrata.
“All operations are stopped at Antamina,” union leader Francisco Marino told Reuters.
Miners struck the Pierina mine of Canada’s Barrick Gold, a union leaders said, though a company official said the mine was operating normally. Both said work at Barrick’s larger Lagunas Norte mine, which relies on temporary workers, was not affected.
Workers also failed to show up for work at the silver-zinc mine of Volcan’s Andaychagua, and unions at other Volcan mines could join the walkout later this week.
Buenaventura said the strike was underway at Uchucchacua, one of Peru’s largest silver mines, but that production was not yet impacted. It said work continued normally at its other mines.
“Uchucchacua is affected by the strike,” Buenaventura’s finance chief Carlos Galvez told Reuters.
The union at Freeport-McMoran’s Cerro Verde mine said workers would likely decide on Wednesday to go on strike after a walkout earlier this month. A union leader at Doe Run Peru said workers could vote to go on strike this week.
Shougang Hierro Peru said it was partially hit by the strike, though a planned walkout had yet to begin at tin producer Minsur.
The Federation of Peruvian Mining Workers wants Congress to approve a law to eliminate caps on profit sharing so workers can benefit more from record-high metals prices.
Two similar nationwide strikes in Peru since May 2007 reduced output and boosted international metals prices, along with recent walkouts in Mexico and Chile.
The federation delayed the start of its strike twice this year to give Congress the chance to discuss the profit-sharing bill and to give unions more time to organize the protest.
Miners are also asking the government to change rules for early retirement, give workers the right to enroll in state-run pension funds, and reduce the workday to eight hours.
Additional reporting by Terry Wade and Marco Aquino; editing by John Picinich