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Escondida will wait 30 days into strike to replace workers

Sheets of copper cathode are pictured at BHP Billiton's Escondida, the world's biggest copper mine, in Antofagasta, Chile March 31, 2008. Picture taken March 31, 2008. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile's Escondida copper mine, the world's largest, said on Tuesday it would not begin replacing striking workers for at least 30 days into the work stoppage to show its commitment to dialogue.

The mine can legally hire temporary workers after 15 days of a strike. Tuesday marked 13 days since unionized workers walked off the job at Escondida, which is controlled by BHP Billiton (BHP.AX)(BLT.L).

Waiting to replace workers means there will be no production from Escondida for at least another two weeks if the strike continues. That will likely push copper prices (CMCU3), which have already hit 20-month highs on supply concerns, even higher.

Government-mediated talks on Monday failed to get workers and representatives of the mine to commit to a schedule of new wage talks.

The company and union are far apart on a number of issues, including shift pattern changes, the size of a one-time bonus, and BHP's wish to give new workers lower benefits.

It was unclear for days if the meeting would even take place as BHP blamed striking workers for interfering with non-unionized service employees on their shift changes.

Escondida is majority-controlled by BHP with minority interests held by Rio Tinto (RIO.AX) (RIO.L) and Japanese companies including Mitsubishi Corp <8058.T.> The mine produced about 5 percent of the world's copper in 2016.

(Reporting by Rosalba O'Brien; Writing by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Chris Reese and Peter Cooney)