By LUIS ANDRES HENAO and EVA VERGARA
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) â¿¿ A series of fast-spreading port strikes in Chile are blocking exports of copper, fruit and wood pulp and keeping thousands of workers idle.
The stoppage in the world's top copper producing nation began in the northern port of Angamos more than two weeks ago, when workers began demanding a 30-minute lunch break and a place to set up a cafeteria. Dock workers in other northern ports have joined in solidarity, causing huge losses for the mining, timber and fruit industries in export-dependent Chile.
"The jobs of hundreds of thousands of Chileans are being jeopardized," Finance Minister Felipe Larrain said on Thursday. "I'm urging (workers) to be responsible and solve this problem soon."
Chile produces about a third of the world's copper and its stable economy is largely built around exports of minerals. The red metal alone accounts for roughly a third of government revenue, and the state has a policy of shoring up national reserves during periods of high copper prices.
Mining also offers many of the country's poor their best shot at a middle-class life, especially in the largely rural and rugged desert areas of northern Chile, where the majority of mines are located.
Mining Minister Hernan de Solminihac said Thursday that the ports affected are used to transport 60 percent of all copper shipments. Officials at the state-owned mining company Codelco told The Associated Press that about 60,000 metric tons of the company's copper has been stuck at port and it has lost more than $500 million since the strike began 21 days ago.
Chile is also a major global exporter of wine, salmon and fruit and the strikes are prompting concerns among state officials and industry leaders about the effect on the harvest. The Andean country's agricultural sector accounts for 800,000 jobs, or more than 10 percent of all employment, according to the government. Of those, 350,000 people work in the fruit sector, thousands of them as owners of their own farms.