BHP Closes World's Biggest Copper Mine Over Strike

Anglo-Australian resources company BHP Billiton has closed operations at the world's biggest copper mine in Chile and ended negotiations with striking workers, the company said Aug. 18. BHP will take legal action against union workers who had blocked all access roads to the Escondida mine in Chile's Atacama Desert, a spokeswoman said.

"This heightened union activity means we no longer feel that we are able to unequivocally guarantee the health and safety of our people or the integrity of the operations, infrastructure," said spokeswoman Emma Meade. "As a result, Minera Escondida has today closed its operations and ceased negotiations with the union. We will not negotiate with the union while they are carrying out this illegal activity.

"We will be taking legal action against the union to resolve this," Meade added.

On Aug. 16, as the strike crippled the world's largest copper mine for the 10th day, the Chilean government for the first time signaled it was ready to intervene. "There is a negotiation under way, it's an issue between private parties, but undoubtedly the government, if there is room to help it reach fruition, will do it," President Michelle Bachelet said. It was the first time Bachelet had proffered the possibility of a government intervention since the strike began on August 7 at the Escondida Mine, majority owned by BHP, the world's biggest miner.

The mine produces 8% of the world's copper output.

Its 2,052 unionized workers, representing 97% of the work force, are seeking higher wages and a bonus amid a surge in global copper prices that has piled up profits for mining companies since the previous collective bargaining agreement, reached three years ago. The strike has strangled operations, resulting in a 90 % reduction in regular output.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2006

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