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UPDATE 2-Argentina calls for fresh talks between oil workers and companies, strike averted

(Updates with government call for mandatory talks)

BUENOS AIRES, April 14 (Reuters) - Argentina’s labor ministry called for a mandatory 15-day period of fresh talks between oil sector workers and the country’s largest oil producing companies, requiring a workers union to call off a strike announced hours earlier over a wage hike.

Workers and the companies, including those that operate in Argentina’s sprawling Vaca Muerta region, one of the world’s largest shale-oil reserves, said earlier in the day they would walk off the job for 24 hours after failing to reach agreement in negotiations.

“We must now undertake the measures necessary to promote a peaceful and legal solution to the conflict,” the labor ministry said in a statement.

Workers from the 24,000-member Private Oil and Gas Union of Río Negro, Neuquén and La Pampa are demanding an additional 30% hike in their 2020 wages, atop the 15% already agreed upon in October, to match runaway inflation that has gripped the country.

“There was no offer on the negotiating table,” union leader Guillermo Pereyra said in a statement. “After five unsuccessful meetings we have launched a total shutdown of activities.”

The wage spat is yet another blow to Vaca Muerta operations, which have seen production and other activity hobbled by protesting health care workers who blocked roads over demands for better wages.

Argentina needs to boost production at Vaca Muerta in order to reduce its energy imports as the government seeks export dollars to protect central bank reserves.

The health worker protest in the Patagonia region had already begun to threaten the supply of fuel to much of the country.

Argentina’s state-controlled YPF is among the main companies operating in the area. YPF declined to comment on the protests. (Reporting by Eliana Raszweski; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Sam Holmes)

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