(Adds company and analyst comments)
By Fabian Cambero
ANTOFAGASTA, Chile Feb 9 Workers at BHP
Billiton's Escondida copper mine in Chile, the
world's largest, walked off the job on Thursday in a strike that
threatens to disrupt the international supply of the widely used
It said no miners arrived for morning work aboard buses that
normally carry upwards of 1,200 workers per shift to the vast
deposit, which accounted for about 6 percent of global
production in 2015.
The striking workers are building a campsite right outside
the mine. The union has warned it is prepared for a lengthy
strike, saying it has stockpiled supplies and provisions for 60
days. Escondida's processing plants, which had begun going
offline on Wednesday, have completely stopped, the union said.
"If someone suddenly walked into your kitchen and took away
your refrigerator, would you just stand there, arms crossed?"
asked miner Jose Alcaino, after returning from the night shift.
"That's what's happening here. They want to take away our
benefits, our money, they want to work us more."
BHP said in a statement on Thursday it was focused on
maintaining "minimum services" at the mine, which typically
consist of small teams of workers maintaining upkeep of
equipment and making sure the mine adheres to environmental
The company also said it was continuing work on new
construction projects, such as expansions at a concentrator and
a desalination plant.
It previously said it will not produce copper during the
At a makeshift camp near the entrance to Escondida, which is
partially owned by Rio Tinto and Japan's JECO
, protesting workers settled in throughout Thursday,
equipped with stockpiles of gas cylinders, portable cookers and
tents to weather the Chilean high desert's scorching sun and
The camp on a windy, barren plateau between the surrounding
mountains was abuzz with chatter and the sound of hammers
hitting nails as some workers began constructing semi-permanent
structures out of wood.
Among the issues pitting the 2,500-member Escondida No. 1
Union against the company are the distribution of benefits.
Workers complain that BHP wants to cut benefits and has not
committed to a benefits scheme that places new and longtime
employees on equal footing, something the union considers
Striking workers also blocked roads at the Coloso port near
the dusty city of Antofagasta, where hundreds of thousands of
tonnes of copper are shipped annually.
"We are united and strong to make sure this is a success,"
said Claudio Perez, plant worker at Coloso.
Fears of the strike had sent copper prices soaring in recent
weeks. Prices for the red metal, however, eased on Thursday as
some investors cashed in the previous day's gains.
Labor negotiations at Escondida, which are seen as a
benchmark for the industry at large, have long history of being
About a decade ago workers staged a now infamous 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.
The last wage talks, which occurred four years ago when
copper prices were 42 percent higher than now, ended with the
company offering each worker a bonus of $49,000, the largest in
Chilean mining history.
This time around the union has asked for a 7 percent salary
increase and a $39,000 bonus.
Industry analysts are watching the developments at Escondida
closely, as they could be a precursor of upcoming labor talks at
Glencore Plc and Anglo American's
Collahuasi is one of several copper mines in Chile due for
contract negotiations this year.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Esposito & Gram Slattery;
Writing by Anthony Esposito & Gram Slattery; Editing by Grant
McCool and Matthew Lewis)