BHP Billiton, Striking Copper Mine Union Resume Talks

BHP Billiton, Striking Copper Mine Union Resume Talks

Sunday, August 13th 2006

BHP Billiton, the world’s biggest mining company, and a union in Chile met in a bid to settle a strike in its fifth day that has cut production at Escondida, the world’s largest copper mine. Copper prices fell.

The two sides, which met twice today, will hold talks again tomorrow, Luis Troncoso, the union’s president, said by telephone from the city of Antofagasta in northern Chile.

“We’re willing to work point by point to reach an accord,” Pedro Marin, the union’s spokesman, said earlier by telephone. “Some points require money, and others don’t.”

The two sides resumed negotiations today for the first time since Aug. 8, seeking to resolve a wage dispute that management estimates has slashed production by 60 percent at Escondida. The mine in northern Chile last year accounted for 8.5 percent of all mined copper worldwide.

Prices for the metal dropped 14.80 cents, or 4.1 percent, to close at $3.4765 a pound for delivery in September on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices pared a gain for the year to 63 percent. In London, copper for delivery in three months tumbled $305, or 3.9 percent, to $7,570 a ton on the London Metal Exchange.

Talking Points

BHP Billiton is willing to reallocate funds in its current offer, Illtud Harri, a spokesman for BHP Billiton in London, said by telephone. The union wants the company to sweeten its proposal, Marin said.

The union, called Escondida’s Workers’ Union No. 1, seeks a salary increase of 13 percentage points above the inflation rate, which was 3.8 percent in July, and a bonus of 16 million pesos ($29,531). The union said it wants wages to reflect copper prices that have jumped more than four-fold since the union last negotiated its contract in 2003.

The union last week rejected the company’s latest offer to increase wages by 3 points above inflation and pay a bonus of 8.5 million pesos per worker.

Escondida, which means “hidden” in Spanish, produced 1.271 million tons of the metal in 2005, or 24 percent of the copper from Chilean mines. Escondida accounts for 2.5 percent of Chile’s gross domestic product, according to the mine’s Web site. Chile is the world’s largest copper supplier.

BHP Billiton owns 57.5 percent of Escondida. Rio Tinto owns 30 percent of the mine, while a group led by Mitsubishi Corp. owns 10 percent. The International Finance Corp. owns the rest.


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