Chile's Codelco seeks to defuse strike after miners clash with police

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chilean miner Codelco sweetened its contract offer to workers on Tuesday in a bid to defuse rising tensions after miners striking at its giant Chuquicamata copper mine were involved in clashes with police earlier in the day.

Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas early on Tuesday as workers at the mine tried to block access to the site operated by state-owned Codelco, the world’s largest copper miner.

Codelco said in a statement it had made a new “serious, responsible and realistic” offer to workers to try to end the strike, now in its fifth day. The offer included an important element related to improving workers’ retirements plans.

“This is the maximum effort Codelco can make,” the mining company said, citing the “current reality of the mining business” and a major restructuring Chuquicamata is currently undergoing.

Reuters had earlier reported, citing sources, that the miner had sweetened its offer.

The improved offer comes after a group of workers at the mine from unions 1, 2 and 3, which represent 80% of its workforce, was repelled by police, while at least 12 people were arrested, one of the unions said.

“The repression is absolute and harsh,” said Hector Milla, president of union 3, adding the workers were part of a strike action that began on Friday when negotiations over a new collective labor contract failed.

Codelco said the protesters had prevented the entry of vehicles carrying workers not participating in the strike.

“This illegal forceful action, publicly promoted by some leaders of these organizations, is a sign of the lack of respect they have for their own comrades,” Codelco said in a statement, adding it would seek legal action against those responsible.

In a letter to the local securities regulator, the miner said it was not yet possible to quantify the impact of the strike, which would depend on whether protesters continued to block access and the length of the stand-off.

The two sides have appeared to be far apart on terms of an agreement that would put an end to the strike. It was not immediately clear if the unions would accept the new deal.

Codelco had previously improved its contract offer to workers, hoping to avert a strike at the mine.

Chuquicamata, also known as “Chuqui,” is one of Codelco’s key copper deposits, but faces a challenge to maintain output as the open-pit mine undergoes a complex $5 billion-plus transformation into an underground shaft mine.

Codelco has said previously Chuqui had maintained output at 50% of its capacity during the strike but that it was seeking to reach even 60%. The unions, however, say sustaining that level of production with a third of the workers is not sustainable.

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