Chile copper mine protest drags on, no end in sight

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – A strike by contract workers that has halved output at the world’s No. 5 copper mine, El Teniente in Chile, entered its 15th day on Wednesday with no end in sight as wage talks stalled, protest leaders said.

Mine owner Codelco slowed output at the world’s top underground copper operation over the weekend after protests by contractors turned violent and forced staff workers to stay home.

An emergency crew has kept production at 40 percent capacity amid a strike that has cost the state giant at least $30 million in lost revenues and about 4,000 tonnes of copper. More than 500 contractors have quit the walkout, or about 4 percent of strikers, both unions and the company said.

Codelco Chief Executive Diego Hernandez told Reuters on Tuesday that he expected the conflict at the 404,000 tonne-a-year mine to be resolved as soon as this week.

However, protest leaders and service companies’ sources said negotiations stalled after workers rejected a bonus of $1,500 last week.

“We are open to talks, but they (contract companies) have not contacted us to resume negotiations,” said Marco Alarcon, a protest leader.

Another leader Luis Nunez said he expected local government authorities to mediate another sit-down with contract companies.

Nunez said employers have to greatly improve their previous offer for the strike to end. Contract companies have said they cannot meet their workers’ demands for $4,700 in bonuses.

The government of President Sebastian Pinera has refused to step in to resolve the conflict, backing Codelco’s position to refrain from direct negotiations with contractors.

Direct talks with contractors could embolden temporary workers at other Codelco divisions to demand higher wages and increases the risk of contagion, a senior company source said.

Dozens of protesters have been detained after violence escalated with contractors throwing rocks at buses carrying staff workers to the mine.