Union workers, Colombia's Cerrejon coal mine reach deal to avoid strike

BOGOTA, March 16 (Reuters) - Union workers at Colombia's largest coal mine Cerrejon reached a deal with the company over wages and benefits that avoided a strike, both sides said late on Tuesday.

A strike at the Cerrejon mine in northern Colombia, which in 2015 produced 33.2 million tonnes of coal, or 38.8 percent of Colombia's total output, would have come at an inopportune time for the country, which is experiencing a commodity-related economic slowdown.

The accord between the union, known as Sintracarbon, and Cerrejon was negotiated with the mediation of the labor ministry. Unionized workers had already voted to strike.

"We signed a deal for two years with salary increases and improvements in health and education. There's no strike," union chief Jairo Quiroz told Reuters.

Cerrejon said in a statement the two-year deal was tough since it comes amid a decline in coal prices.

Cerrejon is a joint venture between Australia-based BHP Billiton Ltd , London-listed Anglo American Plc (LSE: AAL.L - news) and Swiss-based Glencore Xstrata. It (Other OTC: ITGL - news) has been producing coal in Colombia since the mid-1980s under a concession that runs until 2033.

Colombia is the world's fifth-largest coal exporter. The country's output fell 3.5 percent in 2015 to 85.5 million tonnes.

The union represents 4,200 of the 10,000 workers at the mine, located in La Guajira province.

The last strike at Cerrejon took place in February 2013 and lasted 32 days. (Editing by Susan Thomas)