The world's largest copper producer is trying to modernize one of its oldest mines. As the plans trigger a series of disruptions and protests on the part of the workers, it is clear that technical problems will not be the only obstacle.
Codelco is in the final phase of a $ 5.5 billion project to give new life to its Chuquicamata farm in northern Chile that will transform the largest open-pit mine by size on an underground farm.
The state-owned miner needs to invest $ 22 billion by 2022 in modernizing its former mines to keep production at a time when reserves in the world's deposits are dwindling.
However, the project will entail human costs, according to the workers, who point out that more agitation can be expected.
The changes in the mine will involve the cutting of about 1,700 jobs from the current 5,000. Taking into account that other Codelco deposits will follow a similar path, workers are more encouraged to be heard. This suggests that Codelco's relations with mine workers may deteriorate further now that global copper production is lagging behind in demand.
"This is going to intensify even more. We will continue until the company understands that it must respect the workers of Chuquicamata," Cecilia González, president of Union No. 1 said in an interview in Valparaiso. "We are facing an administration that wants to transform Chuquicamata without respecting its culture and history."
The modernization process for the Chuquicamata sub-basin will coincide with Codelco's negotiation with the three largest unions in the mine, representing some 4,500 of the 5,000 workers. They have to sign a new collective bargaining agreement before the current one expires in May.
The move to underground extraction at the centenary Chuquicamata is already having a cost for Codelco. After an interruption in July this month, workers blocked access to the mine on two occasions, with a consequent decrease in production.
Three of the five unions at the mine want management to negotiate job cuts and pay packages, including medical coverage for outgoing workers. They also want a guarantee that the working conditions of clandestine workers will not be worse when the mine starts operating in mid-2019.
So far, the administration has not heard, Gonzalez said. "Workers are aligned with union leaders because they understand that their jobs, their benefits and the health of their families are at stake."
A Codelco executive declined to comment.
The protests in Chuquicamata, which last year produced 331,000 tons of copper and its surroundings, could affect the rest of the mines in the northern district of Codelco, which are very close to each other and in some cases share access roads. They comprise Radomiro Tomic, Codelco's second largest mine, and Minister Hales.
Located in the heart of the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth, Chuquicamata can be mistaken for a canyon. The centennial mine is nearly 5 miles long and has a depth of 1,100 meters (3,600 feet). A truck takes an hour and a half to get to the bottom.
Chuquicamata, Codelco's third largest production exploration, has a long history of clashes between the company and the workers.
"The administration has tried to scare the workers," said Rolando Milla, president of Union No. 3 in Chuquicamata. "But, as has always happened in Chuquicamata's history, there is a time when workers wake up and demand that their union leaders stand up. This is what is happening at this moment, and our people are enraged."