Labor & Workforce

Chile downplays impact of strike at state copper company

Santiago, Jun 22 (EFE).- Unions say that more than 45,000 employees of state-owned Codelco, the world’s top copper producers, are adhering to Wednesday’s national strike to protest the Chilean government’s decision to shut down a smelter blamed for poisoning scores of people.

Management, however, said that company operations were unaffected, while the government presented a plan to preserve the jobs of the workers at the Fundicion Ventanas smelter.

Codelco CEO Andre Sougarret and Chairman Maximo Pacheco joined Finance Minister Mario Marcel at a press conference where he said that 30 percent of profit for the next four years will be plowed back into the firm to enable facilities such as the Ventanas smelter to operate without harming the environment or public health.

Sougarret recognized some “discontinuity” during the first shift change of the day due to the strike, but insisted that there was “no paralysis of tasks.”

“As this was a thing that was announced, we took all the precautions from the point of view of assuring, above all, the safety of people and on the other hand, the continuity of operations,” the CEO said.

Amador Pantoja, an official of the FTC copper workers union, told the media that the strike had produced a “total” stoppage in Codelco.

The unions say that shutting down the smelter in Quintero-Puchuncavi bay was an “improvised decision” by the center-left government of President Gabriel Boric, who promised during the campaign to do away with “sacrifice zones” – areas where human well-being and the environment are subordinated to production.

The shutdown of the smelter – the adjacent copper refinery remains open – came two weeks after emissions from the smelter sickened some 150 people, most of them children, and forced schools to close.

Located on the country’s central Pacific coast, not far from the resort city of Viña del Mar, the towns of Quintero, Puchuncavi, and Ventanas constitute one of Chile’s five officially acknowledged sacrifice zones.

The locale was dubbed the Chilean Chernobyl by Greenpeace in the wake of the still-unexplained poisoning of more than 2,000 people on Aug. 21, 2018.

In the wee hours of Wednesday, representatives of 26 unions gathered in the heart of the Quintero-Puchuncavi industrial area to erect barricades and set piles of tires ablaze in a bid to block access to the bay’s 18 factories and coal-fired power plants.

Codelco and the government, according to the FTC, did not take into account the “social effects” of closing the smelter, and the decision was not supported by scientific evidence of a connection between sulfur dioxide from the plant and the recent episode of poisoning.

The Chilean government estimates that it will take more than $1.15 billion to bring the emissions from the smelter into compliance with international standards.

Chile accounts for 28 percent of global copper output. While Codelco is the largest producer, multinational giants such as BHP and Anglo American also export the red metal from the Andean nation. EFE


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