ANTOFAGASTA, Chile – More than 2,500 Chilean miners are continuing to strike at a camp set up high in the Atacama Desert, a month-long job action aimed at pressuring the Minera Escondida company to agree to their contract demands.
The workers at the Escondida copper mine, the world’s biggest, say they are resisting an attack on their dignity and vowed they would fight to preserve rights and benefits that took them more than two decades to secure.
“We’ve built bathrooms and showers. We have food service and also areas for recreation and meetings” at the camp 3,300 meters (10,820 feet) above sea level, said Carlos Allendes, leader of the 2,500-member No. 1 Union, which represents more than half of the 4,500 workers at Escondida.
The workers say the company, majority owned by Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton, is proposing a new collective agreement that would entail a 14.5 percent reduction in their salaries and benefits and insert discriminatory clauses into the contracts of new workers.
Mining-sector experts and the company’s management say production costs need to be adjusted because of declining ore grades for Chilean copper, but union officials have thus far refused to budge.
“I think these are excuses to justify cuts,” Allendes said.
Workers said at the camp near the mine, located around 150 kilometers (90 miles) from the northern city of Antofagasta, that agreeing to the company’s terms would mean relinquishing benefits that took them a great deal of time and effort to achieve.
“We’re here out of dignity. We work in extreme conditions. Many of us have serious health problems, and we have to live half the month away from our families. We’re not going to renounce the conditions we’ve secured after so many years of struggle,” Cristian Diaz said.
Unionized workers currently earn salaries of around $2,500 a month.
The miners are demanding a 7 percent pay hike, as well as a bonus of around 25 million pesos (some $37,800) per worker; they also want the same benefits received by veteran employees to be extended to new hires.
Under Minera Escondida’s proposal, workers would not receive a raise and would be paid a bonus of just 7 million pesos (around $10,600).
With talks between management and union leaders currently on hold, the strike could become one of the biggest labor battles in the history of Chilean mining.