Union workers at Colombia’s largest coal mine, Cerrejon, have voted in favor of a strike amid a dispute with the company over wages and benefits.
A strike at the Cerrejon mine, which produces 32 million tonnes of coal a year, or 37 percent of Colombia’s total output, would come at a difficult time as the country is experiencing a commodity-related economic slowdown.
“The workers voted to declare the strike,” the Sintracarbon union leader stated. “In the next 10 days, we will decide the start date.”
Cerrejon is a joint venture between Australia-based BHP Billiton Ltd , London- and Johannesburg-based Anglo American Plc and Swiss-based Glencore Xstrata.
It has been producing coal in Colombia since the mid-1980’s under a concession that runs until 2033.
The vote came after a 40-day period of direct negotiations during which the sides failed to reach an agreement. The union and the company will meet again on Friday, Quiroz said.
A representative from Cerrejon said the vote did not necessarily mean a strike would take place and that it is important the two sides continue the negotiations during the 10-day period before the union decides a strike.
The union represents 4,200 of the 10,000 workers at the mine, located in La Guajira province in northern Colombia.
More than 98 per cent of union members who voted were in favor of the action, with a total number 3,428 electing to strike.
Cerrejon has offered a 6.77 percent pay increase, in line with last year’s inflation rate, while workers want a 10.1 percent raise, Quiroz told Reuters in an interview last week.
They also want improvements in education, health and housing.
One of the most important points according Quiroz, is health, because states that “the additional plan has been worn down and there are no proper rehabilitation centers in La Guajira for sick workers.”
Alvaro Lopez, Head of Labour Relations at Cerrejon said that next Tuesday terms for a direct settlement with the other union, Sintracerrejón will expire on Tuesday.
He said the company is making a great effort because global prices of coal have hit a downward trend and this could jeopardize the sustainability of the business and its ability to meet the expectations of workers.
Production at Cerrejon fell by 1.48 percent last year, while exports were down 2.33%.
Colombia is the world’s fifth largest coal exporter. However, the country’s output fell 3.5 percent in 2015 to 85.5 million tonnes.
The last strike at Cerrejon took place in February 2013 and lasted 32 days.