Talks at Colombia's biggest coal exporter stall

BOGOTA Sun Feb 17, 2013 6:00pm EST

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BOGOTA Feb 17 (Reuters) - Cerrejon coal company and its striking workers have failed to agree on how to proceed with wage negotiations to end a walkout at Colombia's largest coal exporter, union and company officials said on Sunday.

The coal sector has been reeling from a series of problems that have cut most of production in the world's fourth-largest coal exporter, including Cerrejon's strike, a stoppage at the second largest producer and a nighttime ban on coal trains.

The Sintracarbon union said there had not been any advances in talks since Friday which had dealt with logistical issues aimed at eventually re-starting talks about wages and benefits.

"Cerrejon left the table," union president Igor Diaz told Reuters in a message.

Juan Carlos Restrepo, Cerrejon's vice-president of public affairs, denied that, saying that: "The table fell apart."

Restrepo told Reuters the company proposed putting a time limit on talks, and if the sides did not agree in the time-frame, the dispute would move to arbitration and the strike would be lifted.

The union rejected those proposals, saying that they would be "contrary to legal precepts".

Cerrejon said there were no immediate plans to meet with the syndicate and that the company wanted clear rules and a time-table to resume negotiations.

After months of talks, laborers at Cerrejon, a joint venture between BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Xstrata , went on strike on Feb. 7, the first walkout in two decades.

Cerrejon produces around 34 million tonnes of coal per year and primarily exports to Europe and the United States.

The strike has pushed up global coal prices.

Under Colombian law, the walkout could theoretically last up to 60 days - afterwards it would go to an arbitration tribunal and the strike would be automatically lifted.

There has been increasing political pressure to resolve the dispute, which, the company estimates, costs the national economy about $3 million daily, but despite mediation by the labor ministry, the two sides have yet to make headway.

Unions often use strikes or the threat of a walkout to pressure companies into better deals for workers. In 2011, laborers at Cerrejon voted to strike but reached a deal with the company before actually walking off the job.

Cerrejon's wage discussions were the first in a series of labor talks in 2013 in Colombia whose mining and oil companies have suffered in recent years from increased worker unrest and a rise in rebel attacks.

The second biggest coal exporter, Drummond International, also has wage talks this year.

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