They Shall Not Pass, Striking Workers Warn Escondida Management

  • BHP has said it may try and resume production at copper mine
  • Strike by 2,500 workers at giant copper mine in its 29th day

Any attempt by BHP Billiton Ltd. to resume production at the giant Escondida copper mine in northern Chile won’t come easy as striking workers dig in around the site.

Three miles outside the mine, a group of about 10 workers, faces covered with masks, note down the cars and trucks passing along the highway, phoning in any suspicious movements to their colleagues at a checkpoint further up the road. If drivers don’t have a permit or an authorization by union leaders, they are not allowed in.

Luis Rodriguez

Photographer: Laura Millan Lombrana/Bloomberg

“We control the access points day and night,” said Luis Rodriguez, a machine operator assigned to man the check-point at night. “They might try to enter, but we won’t let them in.”

The company said this week that it would consider using contractors to resume some processes at the mine as soon as Friday when a strike by about 2,500 workers reaches its 30th day, but only if safety conditions weren’t compromised.

After four weeks taking turns living in a tented city outside the mine and with no new pay offer from management, the strikers said they were in no mood to let contract workers pass.

Striking workers

Photographer: Laura Millan Lombrana/Bloomberg

The makeshift camp outside the mine accommodates about 1,100 people at any given time, with the workers organizing seven-day shifts at the site. To keep themselves busy, they have built two football pitches and play occasional tournaments. They also watch movies at an improvised cinema and keep guard of the mine’s six access points.

“We are in a good mood, but it’s still hard to sleep in a tent on the floor,” Rodriguez said. “Here in the desert, the sun is strong during the day, but the wind blows strong in the evening and temperatures drop below zero at night.”

Risky Business

An attempt by BHP to resume production at the world’s largest copper mine could also put lives at risk, as operating the machines requires skilled workers who are familiar with the process, Union Number 1 spokesman Carlos Allendes said Thursday.

Carlos Allendes

Photographer: Laura Millan Lombrana/Bloomberg

A processing plant was flooded and had to remain halted for two months in 2006, the last time the company tried to break a strike by using contractors at Escondida, he said.

“If they try to resume production they will put machines and lives at risk,” Allendes said. “We will decide what to do when they do it, if they do it, but we are quite confident they won’t take the risk.”

Global copper supply is being disrupted by the stoppage at Escondida and at the world’s second-largest copper mine in Indonesia’s Grasberg. In China, Jiangxi Copper’s Chairman Li Baomin said the company is ramping up metal production to its full capacity this year to take advantage of prices the reached the highest in about 20 months in February.

Black Duck

Back in the northern Chile desert, workers have installed nets around the camp to stop the wind and sand from entering tents. Some have managed to bring electricity to common areas where they have their meals, while others have installed solar panels and even satellite dishes.

Images of a black duck, the union’s symbol, can be seen on flags and painted on walls along with slogans such as “Copper is ours”. To one side, a dummy dressed in mine clothes has a cardboard sign hanging from its neck referring to the “traitor” Patricio Vilaplana, Escondida’s vice-president of corporate affairs. Behind the dummy, striking workers have built a chicken pen where plastic chickens hang from a wooden stick, along with signs with the names of the company’s directors and officials.

Vilaplana has said the company would only send in workers to resume some activities if their safety can be guaranteed. Escondida is willing to resume talks in a bid to end the strike, he said on Wednesday.

There is little sign of the strike ending any time soon.

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