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Chilean Copper Workers to Begin National Strike

The trade unions of state-owned Codelco have convoked an indefinite stoppage from Wednesday in protest at the government’s plans to close the Ventanas foundry

Photo: Cristobal Olivares/Bloomberg
June 21, 2022 | 11:51 am

Santiago — Chile’s Copper Workers’ Federation (FTC) has called a national strike in all divisions of state-owned company Codelco, with the aim of “reversing” the government of President Gabriel Boric’s decision to close the Ventanas foundry and refinery.

The leaders of 26 trade unions have agreed to the indefinite stoppage, and the FTC’s president, Amador Pantoja, said that an investment of around $50 million by the company would resolve the pollution issues the government has cited as the reason for the plant’s closure.

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The FTC explained the reasons for the strike, also citing the threat of privatization of the country’s copper industry, in a tweet on June 20.

The announcement of the plant’s closure has caused friction between the workers of Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, and Boric, who has been in power for a little more than three months.

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Boric held a meeting on Monday at the Palacio de La Moneda with several ministers, including Mining Minister Marcela Hernando, and the president of Codelco’s board of directors, Máximo Pacheco, to coordinate the process of closing Ventanas, which is located in the industrial zone of Quintero and Puchuncaví, in Valparaíso region, and which is blamed for causing pollution that, in the most recent episode, affected more than 100 people.

Boric has said he does not want “more environmental sacrifice zones” in the country.

“Today there are hundreds of thousands of people living in our country exposed to severe environmental deterioration that we have caused or allowed, and that, as a Chilean, makes me ashamed,” Boric said last Friday.

For her part, Environment Minister Maisa Rojas said that pollution is produced by multiple agents.

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“The smelter contributes 62% of sulfur dioxide (SO2), if it stops operating it will at least lessen the risk of intoxications by that pollutant. It does not solve the whole problem, but it is a step forward,” she said.

The government does not plan on reversing its decision to close the Ventanas facility, and assures that it will continue dialogue with the workers, even if they go on strike. Boric assures that all copper will continue to be processed “exclusively” in Codelco’s smelters and “no worker” will be left without a job.

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“It is a difficult decision, but I am convinced that it is the right one,” he said recently.

Chile is one of the richest economies in Latin America, and its main export is copper. In 2021, Codelco produced 1,618,266 metric tons of fine copper, maintaining the output of the previous year, but in the first quarter of 2022 it produced 364,000 tons of fine copper, a drop of 5.7% compared to the same period last year.

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Boric, who aims for a greener and more egalitarian economy, has committed to increasing investment in the state-owned company.

“This year, Codelco will invest more than $90 million in exploration, as well as $86 million in innovation and technology. This is important, because to take care of Codelco we must reinvest in it and not squeeze all the resources it produces, defending the company against all privatization attempts,” he said in early June.

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The conflict with the unions of Codelco occurs amid a slowdown in the economy and a drop in public support for the Chilean president. According to a Cadem poll published on Sunday, Boric is the head of state who has suffered the lowest popularity in his first 100 days of government; with an average approval rating among those polled of 41%.

Translated from the Spanish by Adam Critchley