Strike weakens at Chile copper mine, output rises

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Nearly half of the contractors in a strike that halved output at the world’s No. 5 copper mine, El Teniente in Chile, have ended the work stoppage, a representative of their employers said, a sign that the protest is weakening ahead of renewed wage talks on Thursday.

German Gonzalez, head of an umbrella group of service companies, said about 4,000 workers or 40 percent of strikers have inked individual wage deals and quit the walkout.

“Today we plan to give them our final offer and it’s a take or leave it offer,” Gonzalez said. “Protest leaders are exhausted and losing control over this illegal strike. We expect everything to return to normal on Monday.”

He said dissenting contractors are gradually returning to the 404,000 tonne-a-year mine as fears over violence persist.

Mine owner Codelco slowed output to 40 percent capacity at the world’s top underground copper operation over the weekend after protests by contractors turned violent and forced staff workers to stay home.

The state-run company said output is steadily increasing as hundreds of contractors return to work.

Protest leader denied that so many temporary workers are returning to work, but acknowledged that hundreds have quit striking in recent days.

“We remain strong. We want a quick end to this problem, but will not take any offer,” said Luis Nunez, a protest leader.

Strikers are demanding higher wages and better benefits.

Codelco said operation disruptions has cost the state giant at least $30 million in lost revenue and up to 4,000 tonnes in output.

The company is suing protest leaders for damages to private property after protesters threw rocks at buses carrying staff workers to the mine.

Staff workers unions said workers will not return to work until they receive safety guarantees.

The protest drew comparisons to a violent demonstration by contractors in 2007-2008 that forced Codelco to halt work at El Teniente and other two mines. Risk of contagion seen low at the moment, but companies are monitoring for any wage demands among contractors at their mines, unions and companies’ sources said.

Juan Cristobal Silva, a labor ministry official in the region acting as mediator, said both sides are showing sings they want to reach a deal soon to end the 16-day walkout.

“I have seen willingness in both sides to end the conflict,” he said. “Today is a crucial day. It’s a key opportunity to end this conflict” (Reporting by Alonso Soto; Editing by Marguerita Choy)