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  • Miners protest at the entrance of Puerto Coloso, in La Escondida mine, in Antofagasta, Chile, March 2017.

    Miners protest at the entrance of Puerto Coloso, in La Escondida mine, in Antofagasta, Chile, March 2017. | Photo: EFE

The strikers are demanding a pay increase and better benefits given the risks associated with their job.

The firm that runs Chile’s Escondida mine, the largest copper mine in the world where 2,500 workers have been on strike for more than a month, agreed Friday to meet with strike leaders. 

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The meeting between miners and Minera Escondida, which runs the mine as part of the Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton, has been proposed for Monday afternoon at the labor ministry, Minera Escondida's president Marcelo Castillo told a press conference.

For more than a month, the miners demanding improved labor rights have camped out at the site over 10,800 feet above sea level, in the heart of the Atacama Desert, about 105 miles south of the city of Antofagasta, known for its copper production. They are fighting for better working conditions and benefits.

"We are fighting to maintain some rights and benefits that we achieved after a lot of struggle. It has taken us over two decades to achieve what we have, we will not give it up like that," miner Cristian Diaz told EFE.

Previous attempts to make it to the negotiating table with Australian-owned mine operator BHP Billiton have failed. Escondida's workers launched the strike on Feb. 9 after contract talks with BHP broke down, failing to reach an agreement.

Key sticking points include disagreement over the level of benefits new workers should receive, as well as planned changes to shift work patterns and benefits.

Workers complain that BHP wants to cut benefits and has not committed to new and longtime employees on job stability. The union has asked for a 7 percent salary increase and a US$39,000 bonus.

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"We are here to demand dignity, we work in extreme conditions, many of us have serious health problems and we have to live half a month away from our families," Diaz added.

Lasting for more than a month, the Escondida strike has become one of the most conflictive labor disputes in the history of mining in Chile.

"We are going to stay here on the hill until the end, we are prepared and organized to last another month or even two," said Diaz.

World supply concerns have led copper prices to record-high, as Indonesia's Grasberg, the world's second largest copper mine, has an export ban, and Peru's large Las Bambas mine also faces protests.

Escondida produced 1.15 million tons of copper in 2015, or 6 percent of global output that year. In Chile, copper makes up more than half of all exports.

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