Thousands of steelworkers on Saturday joined striking miners of an Arcelor Mittal-owned metal and mining complex in Kazakhstan, in an escalating standoff with the international steel giant over wages.
The Mittal Steel Temirtau coal miners went on strike Tuesday, demanding pay raises and improved safety after 41 miners were killed days ago in a methane gas explosion at the Lenin mine one of the Central Asian nation's deadliest mining accidents.
Workers have long alleged that Arcelor Mittal, which runs 61 plants in 27 countries, has done little to improve labor and safety conditions since taking over Kazakhstan's largest metal factory and the mines that fuel it 11 years ago.
More than 6,000 steelworkers, coal and ore miners protested Saturday in front of their employer's office building in the town of Temirtau, holding banners that read, "No more dying for Mittal!" and "We don't want to live in poverty!"
"Ten years ago we produced 160,000 tons of steel a year. Now we turn out 300,000 tons, while the pay is the same," trade union leader Yuri Baranov told the crowd. "The equipment has gone obsolete to the limit."
Steelworkers, whose wages average US$300 (237) a month, demanded a 40 percent pay raise. Miners, paid an average of US$350 (276) a month, want US$15 (11.85) an hour.
Mittal Steel Temirtau's Chief Executive Officer Nawal Choudhary told the protesters that the company could not raise wages because of decreasing sales.
Choudhary said sales to China, the company's main buyer, have dropped from 130,000 tons a month to 10,000. He did not elaborate.
The workers threatened to hold further massive protests and to halt all work at the entire factory if no "cardinal steps" are taken by Wednesday to meet their demands.
Production was already under threat Saturday, with all eight of Mittal Steel Temirtau's mines producing coal and the factory running out of coal reserves.
Saturday's two-hour rally was authorized by the authorities in Temirtau, a town in central Karaganda region, the ex-Soviet republic's industrial heartland.
The company agreed Wednesday to announce wage raises for coal miners within 10 days, but the miners said they would continue the protest until the raise is official.
They threatened more demonstrations if they are not satisfied with the new conditions.
The company's metal workers have been holding talks with management, demanding a pay raise, for the past two months.
Mittal Steel Co. NV is in the process of merging with Arcelor SA to form Arcelor Mittal.
Mittal Chief Executive Officer Lakshmi Mittal said Saturday that the company had invested US$240 million (189.57 million) on modernizing the complex. He also said accident victims' families would receive up to US$55,000 (43,444) each in compensation.
Authorities said the Lenin mine accident had been caused when electricity was turned on in an unventilated mine.
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