By Felipe Iturrieta
ESCONDIDA MINE, Chile (Reuters) - With no bonus, and no salary rise, it was not the ending the 2,500 workers at Chile's Escondida, the world's largest copper mine, wanted. But keeping their benefits was still a victory of sorts for them after the longest strike in the country's mining history.
As they packed up the camp on the mine's outskirts in the dusty, high altitude desert that has been their home for the last 44 days, workers said in interviews on Friday they were satisfied with the outcome.
"It's been tiring, the showers were cold and obviously we missed home comforts, but here we were all the same, standing firm," supply operator Luis Varas said, as he took down his tent and shook out the dust.
The strike at Escondida, which produced over 1 million tonnes of copper, or 5 percent of the world's supply, last year, began on Feb. 9, after mine operator BHP Billiton (BLT.L) (BHP.AX) and the union failed to agree on new contract terms.
Key points of disagreement focussed on changes the company wanted to make to benefits and work shifts and whether new employees should earn the same benefits, such as comprehensive private healthcare, as existing ones. A two-tier benefits system might have wound up weakening the union, one of Chile's most powerful.
On Thursday, after repeated attempts at returning to negotiations failed, the workers ended the deadlock after they triggered a rarely used legal provision that will allow them to extend their old contract for 18 months.
That means they will enjoy existing benefits and working conditions and hold the next talks under an upcoming labour law that strengthens their hand.
But they will also lose out on any pay raise and on a bonus typically paid when the contract is signed. The union had asked for a bonus of $38,000.
"You can spend the bonus in a few days, but we have some people with health problems. ... That (health insurance) benefit is much more important and it wasn't lost," said equipment maintenance worker Jorge Salinas. "It's not all about money."
On Saturday, miners will return to their posts, with initial work focussing on safety procedures and rehabilitation of shared spaces.
Escondida President Marcelo Castillo said on Thursday that it could take as long as eight months to get operations back to how they were before the strike began.
The miners striking camp said it was a dignified exit.
"We're happy to be going home, to be with our families," said Varas. "Now a new stage begins."
(Reporting by Felipe Iturrieta; Writing by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Richard Chang)