SANTIAGO – Employees at Chile’s Escondida copper mine, the world’s largest, decided to end a 43-day strike after invoking a labor-law provision that allows them to extend their existing contract for an additional 18 months.
The workers launched the job action early last month to press demands for, among other things, a 25-million-peso ($37,800) bonus per worker and a 7 percent salary hike. They also accused Minera Escondida, majority-owned by Anglo-Australian giant BHP Billiton, of not committing to equal health benefits for new hires.
The company initially offered a bonus of 8 million pesos per worker and no salary hike but said it had preserved full health-care coverage for workers.
Minera Escondida last week sweetened its proposal, increasing an end-of-strike bonus offer to 11 million pesos and agreeing to inflation-adjusted salary hikes.
Workers, meanwhile, reduced their demands but still insisted on no change in working hours; no change in benefits in existence under the previous collective agreement, which expired on Jan. 31; and no distinction in benefits between existing and new workers.
During the strike, mining-sector experts and Minera Escondida’s management said production costs needed to be adjusted downward because of declining ore grades for Chilean copper.
“We’ll return to work on Saturday,” Carlos Allendes, a spokesman for a union representing around 2,500 striking workers, said, adding that it would take around two weeks for the mine to return to normal production.
The end to the impasse came when employees invoked an article in Chile’s Labor Code that allows them to extend their existing contract for 18 months before resuming talks on a new deal.
That means the next negotiation will take place after the entry into force in April of a new labor law backed by President Michelle Bachelet’s government that, among other things, bars companies from replacing striking workers and does not allow them to lower benefits from one contract to the next.
Minera Escondida’s president, Marcelo Castillo, said the contract extension was problematic for his company and would force it to revise its productive structure and operating model.
A total of 1 million metric tons of copper were extracted last year from Escondida, a mine in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert in which BHP Billiton has a 57.5 percent stake and London-based Rio Tinto and two Japanese consortiums have minority interests.