SANTIAGO – Workers at the world’s largest copper mine made landmark progress in their ongoing labor dispute, winning thousands of dollars in bonuses and higher wages for unionized members.

The Escondida mine, located in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, will pay each of its workers a bonus of US$25,340, give them a 5 percent raise, increase their health and education benefits, and provide easy access to up to US$6,339 in loans. The union, which has roughly 2,250 members, voted to accept the offer with a 72 percent yes vote. The union contract was set to expire Dec. 5.

This latest concession by Escondida, which is owned by British/Australian mining giant BHP Billiton and produces 5 percent of the world’s copper, will almost certainly influence labor negotiations at other Chilean mining sites, including Spence, another BHP Billiton mine, and the Andina division of state-run copper company, CODELCO.

At Spence, where the workers are on strike, union leaders are demanding benefits above those won in Escondida. “We’re open to resuming the dialogue, but we’re warning that we can afford to continue striking for months,” union leader Andrés Ramírez told El Mercurio. He said that his union was not blocking access for workers or vehicles entering the mine.

Still, Escondida’s successes will not necessarily carry over to the other labor disputes, according to Juan Carlos Guarjardo, director of the Santiago-based Center for Copper and Mining Studies (CESCO). “I don’t think it’s possible to extrapolate the same numbers to all cases, but it will play an influential role in establishing a higher level of demands,” he said, pointing out that several mining contracts will end later this year, which puts the Escondida settlement at the center of the mining industry’s attention.

Escondida workers fought for higher wages in 2006 as well, and, after a 25-day strike, won a bonus of US$16,290 and a 5 percent wage hike.

Copper has long been the lynchpin of Chile’s economy. According to the Chilean central bank, in 2008 copper represented 42.49 percent of Chile’s exports and 15.5 percent of its gross domestic product.

By Daniel Zarchy ( editor@santiagotimes.clThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it )

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