SHAKHTINSK, Kazakhstan -- A strike by coal miners in north-central Kazakhstan has spread to more mines as hundreds of workers are refusing to return to the surface, demanding higher salaries and better benefits.
Kazakh Labor Minister Tamara Duisenova told reporters on December 12 that 684 miners at eight different mines have spent two nights underground in coal mines in the town of Shakhtinsk, in the Qaraghandy region.
Regional officials had said earlier that a much lower number of miners, up to 200, had stayed underground at four coal mines in Shakhtinsk.
Duisenova said the miners, who work for ArcelorMittal Temirtau, are demanding that their wages be doubled and that they be allowed to retire at the age of 50.
They are also calling for improved health-care coverage, upgraded equipment and safety measures, as well as improvements to the infrastructure of Shakhtinsk.
Duisenova said some 32 worker representatives are negotiating with mine officials to resolve the issue.
Spouses Lend Support
Miners who are above ground are supporting those who refuse to leave the mine, supplying them with food and water. Many spouses and other relatives are also at the mines bringing clothes and other items to the striking miners.
"We want to support our men...they say they are determined to [strike] until the end, until they come to a compromise," said Svetlana Yerzhumanova.
Miner Sergei Galister told RFE/RL that "people set a goal and they want to achieve it. The guys in the mine said they will not leave until there is a resolution."
"The demands of our colleagues and all who are present at the mine, we support completely," Vladimir Khaniev, an employee of the striking Lenin mine, told RFE/RL.
ArcelorMittal Temirtau officials told RFE/RL that new contracts are being drafted to reflect the miners’ main demand -- a 100 percent increase in their salaries.
Duisenova said the salary for a mine worker above ground is about 208,000 tenge per month ($621) and about 326,000 tenge ($973) for a miner who extracts the coal.
The company -- a branch of global metals giant ArcelorMittal, which is owned by Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal -- said in September that it was negotiating a new collective agreement with steelworker and miner unions and planned to sign it before the end of the year.
ArcelorMittal Temirtau operates eight coal mines and four iron-ore mines in resource-rich Kazakhstan and operates a metallurgical plant in Temirtau. It produced about 4 million tons of steel in Kazakhstan in 2016.
Last month, copper miners near the Kazakh city of Zhezqazghan in the same region also refused to come out of their mine, demanding salary increases and better benefits.
They only ended their strike after their employer, KazakhMys, agreed to some of their demands.
With reporting by Current Time TV and Reuters