By Marco Aquino
LIMA, June 18 (Reuters) - Peru's miners are revving up stalled operations with mass testing, isolation periods and revamped shift patterns, setting up the world's No. 2 copper producer to hit 80% of production capacity by the end of June, industry officials said.
The restart is key to Peru's economic engine and metals output which was devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and a nationwide lockdown. But unions for mine workers have voiced concerns that some planned shifts are too long while testing and protective measures need to be strengthened.
The mining and hydrocarbons industry, the top driver of Peru's exports, fell over 40% in April, with output of copper, gold, zinc and silver down sharply. Companies are scrambling to avoid falling further behind larger neighboring producer Chile, which has maintained production through the pandemic.
At least 41 large Peruvian firms have put in place government-mandated hygiene protocols as they seek to reach full production capacity in the third quarter, industry sources said.
"Around the end of June I think we should be reaching 80% of production levels that we were at before the quarantine," Pablo de la Flor, executive director of industry body the National Society of Mining, Petroleum and Energy, told Reuters this week.
He said every company was carrying out rapid tests on workers before deploying them, with around 90,000 such tests done so far. That had allowed an estimated 160,000-170,000 miners to return to operations out of 210,000 formal workers.
"Some tests have come out positive, but the important thing is that cases are identified before workers arrive at the camps," he said.
Shift systems had been reorganized he added. Distancing rules of 1-1.5 meters was a challenge at the mines, which was something the sector was "trying to solve".
Industry concern had centered on the massive Antamina mine, controlled by BHP and Glencore, which reported 210 COVID-19 infections in April. It was the biggest mining outbreak in the country and one of the worst worldwide.
"Antamina must have been a world record," said José de Echave, a former vice minister at Peru's environment ministry who now works at local NGO CooperAcción.
"That created a suspicion around mining protocols."
Mine workers have staged sit-in protests at some mines demanding stronger protective measures, Jorge Juárez, leader of Peru's mining and steel workers' federation told Reuters.
Juárez said unions objected to 42-day shifts that some firms were imposing, with 21-day breaks. He said the federation was pushing for more checks to ensure worker safety. He added rapid coronavirus tests didn't always work.
"Rapid tests aren't reliable so we want molecular tests that give more accurate diagnosis," he said, adding there were 821 confirmed cases in the sector. "Workers want to work, of course. We only ask for guarantees they can work in a safe environment."
Mining companies defended their plans.
"We have rigorous distancing protocols in transport vehicles and dining rooms. Also, all personnel who could be vulnerable due to age or illness have been removed," said Raúl Jacob, vice president of finance at Southern Copper.
"Operating capacity today is above 90%," he added during a virtual call with Reuters and other analysts and reporters in early June. Southern Copper, which said one worker was infected while outside work, is part of Grupo México.
Peru's government in May allowed mines to resume larger-scale operation, expected to now drive a recovery in output. Smaller mines have also since been given the green light.
As for Antamina, the firm said in a recent internal memo seen by Reuters and later posted online that workers who tested negative for COVID-19 would be isolated before starting their shifts and distancing of 1.5-2 meters would be maintained.
Peru has some 240,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, the second highest in Latin America after Brazil, and among the top 10 globally, according to a Reuters count.
The Andean country was among the first in the region to impose a quarantine in March and has extended it until June 30, though it also has moved to allow the restart of several key sectors to reactivate the economy.
Industry sources said some important mines were up and running, including the Las Bambas copper project operated by MMG and Toromocho controlled by Aluminum Corp of China . Nexa Resources said this month it was operating its Peruvian mines at near full capacity.
Víctor Gobitz, general manager of precious metals producer Buenaventura, said the length of shifts had been doubled to 28 days with 14 days off. At some sites workers are now being housed with their families to reduce the amount of travel.
"We're organizing groups of 5 to 10 people and if there's any suspicion of contagion, the cell withdraws and another cell enters," Gobitz said in a virtual conference with international reporters in late May.
"That way the entire workforce is not put at risk." (Reporting by Marco Aquino; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Dave Gregorio)
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