The world’s biggest copper maker is pushing to modernize one of its oldest mines. With the plans spurring a quickening series of worker protests and disruptions, it’s becoming clear that technical challenges won’t be the only hurdle.
Codelco is in the last stages of a $5.5 billion project to breathe new life into its Chuquicamata operation in northern Chile, which will transform the largest open-pit mine by size into an underground operation. The state-owned miner needs to spend $22 billion through 2022 upgrading its aging mines to maintain output at a time when stockpiles in the world’s warehouses are ebbing.
But the project won’t be without human costs, according to the workers, who are signaling further unrest may be in the offing. Changes to mine will entail cutting about 1,700 jobs from the current 5,000. With other Codelco sites set to follow a similar path, workers are feeling more urgency to make themselves heard. That suggests Codelco’s relations with the mine’s workforce may get more fraught just as global copper output is falling behind demand.
“This will just keep escalating — we will continue until the company understands they must respect Chuquicamata workers,” Cecilia Gonzalez, president of Chuquicamata Union No. 1, said in an interview in Valparaiso. “We are dealing with an administration that wants to transform Chuquicamata without respecting its culture and its history.”
The ramp-up process for Chuquicamata underground will coincide with Codelco’s labor negotiation with the mine’s three largest unions, representing about 4,500 workers of 5,000. They will need to sign a new collective contract before the current one expires in May.
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