Colombia's Cerrejon, striking coal workers close to wage deal

BOGOTA, March 4 Mon Mar 4, 2013 9:33am EST

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BOGOTA, March 4 (Reuters) - Striking workers and Colombia's top coal exporter, Cerrejon, are close to a wage deal to end a nearly month-old walkout, the company said on Monday.

The work stoppage has meant the loss of a couple million tonnes of thermal coal from global markets and cost the Andean country millions of dollars in royalties.

The shutdown at Cerrejon is the last main supply problem in the coal sector in Colombia, the world's fourth-largest coal exporter, after a regulator lifted suspensions on the No. 2 producer, Drummond Ltd, and on the main railway last week.

"The company is confident that this progress in the negotiation process will lead to the quick settlement of the labor dispute to end the strike," Cerrejon said in a statement on Monday. "It is expected that at the next meeting the new collective labor agreement will be signed."

Neither the company nor the union revealed the terms of the possible deal under discussion.

Igor Diaz, president of the Sintracarbon union, told Reuters that labor leaders were conferring with workers about Cerrejon's proposal on Monday and that this process should be completed "between today and tomorrow."

The two sides would then meet to finalize an agreement on wages and benefits.

Cerrejon - a joint venture between Anglo American Plc , BHP Billiton Ltd and Xstrata Plc - had to declare force majeure on some coal shipments due to the walkout, which started on Feb. 7.

Colombia's coal sector has been reeling from a series of stoppages since early February, when Cerrejon workers went on strike and regulators suspended coal loading at Drummond and banned night trains at the main railway, Fenoco.

On Friday, the National Environmental Licenses Authority, known as ANLA, gave Drummond and Fenoco the go-ahead to restart those operations.

European coal futures prices dropped on Monday to their lowest since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, in part due to the lifting of the suspensions in Colombia.

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