Escondida copper mine in Chile says to restart operations

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The Escondida copper mine in Chile plans to restart operations after striking workers again rejected an invitation by controlling owner BHP Billiton to return to negotiations, an executive told reporters late Tuesday.

File Photo: A view of the BHP Billiton's Escondida, the world's biggest copper mine, in northern Chile, in Antofagasta, Chile March 31, 2008. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado/File Photo

The world’s largest copper mine will first resume work in two areas of the mine that are unrelated to the current talks, Escondida Mine President Marcelo Castillo said at a news conference in the city of Antofagasta.

The company will then begin to do additional maintenance work, before finally re-establishing mining operations and restarting copper production.

“We hope that in some way opportunities for dialogue come about...but with the posture that we saw yesterday (from the union) and that all of you saw yesterday, it’s difficult to be able to hope for a conversation in the short term,” Castillo said.

Under Chilean law the mine was allowed to hire temporary workers 15 days after the strike started on Feb. 9, but had said it would wait for 30 days to show its commitment to dialogue. Tuesday marked day 34 of the strike.

In response to BHP’s statement late Tuesday, the union said it was taking a level-headed approach to the latest development.

“We are calm, and we are reviewing the (company’s) statements with calm,” a union spokesman told Reuters.

Copper production has been halted since the 2,500-member union went on strike. On Monday, workers rejected a company invitation to return to the table, saying the invitation did not take into account workers’ pre-conditions for dialogue.

Union demands include that BHP agrees not to trim benefits in the existing contract, that shift patterns should not be made more taxing for workers, and new workers be offered the same benefits as those already employed at the mine.

It was the third failed attempt to restart dialogue during the strike, which has pushed global copper prices higher due to supply concerns.

On Friday, BHP invited the union to return to negotiations, but the union rejected that invitation on the same grounds.

Throughout the process, negotiations have been tense, with the company at times accusing the union of violence, and the replacement of workers could lead to additional confrontation.

Escondida produced slightly more than 1 million tonnes of copper in 2016, making it the world’s largest copper mine.

Rio Tinto and Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi Corp hold minority interests in the mine.

Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Writing and additional reporting by Gram Slattery; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Lisa Shumaker