* Protester lift blockade, unclear if protest over
* Fears of contagion at other mines persist
* Mine operations says unclear restart date
(Recast with lift of blockade, adds protest leader comment)
By Alonso Soto
SANTIAGO, May 11 Subcontractors cleared access
roads to Chile's Collahuasi copper mine to avoid clashes with
police in a move that could herald an end to a five-day protest
that halted operations at one of the world's top deposits, two
protest leaders said.
"We have cleared the roads and are leaving the mine,"
Roberto Escobar, one of the protest leaders at the mine, told
Reuters on Tuesday. "We are not standing on the side of the
road. People are going home"
But another union leader said lifting the blockade did not
mean the protest was over and it was unclear if the
demonstration would continue.
Collahuasi said it was unclear when it would restart
operations at the mine that produced 535,000 tonnes of copper
Talks to end the blockade that had cut 3.3 percent of the
world's mined copper output broke down earlier on Tuesday,
which raised the specter of violence at the mine. Riot police
entered the mine to clear the roads, but there no clashes,
protest leaders and the operator said.
Copper prices slid on Tuesday as lingering European debt
fears kept markets jittery, but a prolonged strike at the
massive mine and growing risk of contagion in the world's top
copper producer could push up the metal's value.
Collahuasi was forced to halt operations on Saturday, a day
after hundreds of subcontractors blocked access with burning
tires and rocks to demand better working conditions and pay.
Global miners Anglo American (AAL.L) and Xstrata XTA.L
jointly own a 44 percent stake each. A Japanese consortium led
by Mitsui & Co (8031.T) is a minority stakeholder.
ANALYSIS-Chile copper may take hit on protest [ID:nN11103356]
TIMELINE of Chile's major mining strikes [ID:nN1199411]
FACTBOX of Chile copper labor contracts [ID:nN10216242]
FACTBOX on Chile's giant Collahuasi mine [ID:nN1198815]
Map: Chile top copper mines link.reuters.com/zad85j
RISK OF CONTAGION
Protest leaders had told Reuters they plan to spread their
fight that has drawn national attention on the growing pay
disparity between subcontractors and their full-time peers.
They said they represent around 4,000 subcontractors working
for the mine.
Collahuasi said it had abandoned talks due to the
subcontractors' refusal to allow hundreds of its workers at the
mine, located more than 4,400 meters (14,500 feet) above sea
level, to return home from their shift.
Union leaders for the mine's full-time workers said they
sympathize with subcontractors, signaling what could be tough
collective negotiations as the union contract expires in
Mining companies face a growing risk of more protests if
they fail to raise benefits and improve conditions for
thousands of part-time workers who are needed for operations in
a country that extracts a third of the world's mined copper.
In 2007 and 2008, sometimes violent subcontractor protests
cut output at the world's top producer Codelco, forcing the
state giant to pay higher wages and improve working
Cristian Cuevas, who led the protests at Codelco and is the
head of a nationwide subcontractors group, said the his
members' plight is likely to spread across the country if mines
do not start improve their working conditions.
"There is no question this fight will expand across the
country," said Cuevas, the head of a nation-wide confederation
of subcontractors. "Companies will have to respect the their
workers, stop the discrimination."
Unions and executives at Codelco [CODEL.UL], BHP Billiton
(BHP.AX) (BLT.L) Antofagasta (ANTO.L) have said there has been
no incidents with subcontractors at their mines in Chile since
the Collahuasi protest started.
(Reporting by Alonso Soto and Fabian Cambero; Editing by Lisa
Shumaker and Leslie Gevirtz)