Chile: San Antonio's two cents on the port strikes
The atmosphere outside Chile's Central Port of San Antonio is one of concern. Dozens of workers are gathered in groups to show their participation in a conflict that already appeared to have ended. The port that shook up Chilean exports with strike action is still lively, albeit only affecting 10% of operations now.
Thousands of containers sit in San Antonio waiting for mobilized workers to return to their posts. What started as a show of solidarity with striking workers in Angamos and Mejillones has turned into a social movement that could once again stop port activities if a satisfactory agreement is not made.
In a www.freshfruitportal.com exclusive, we speak with Sergio Vargas, the spokesperson for the San Antonio port workers and president of the Federation for Future and Current Maritime Port Workers (FETRAMPEC). He explains that although the end of the conflict is tied to stevedore negotiations in the ports of Angamos and Mejillones, the situation took a 360° turn when Labor Minister Evelyn Matthei decided that a half hour lunch is worth CLP$3,600 (US$7.70).
"We were asking that the value of the half hour lunch break be set at CLP$10,000 (US$21.39) in our port. The value of half an hour is not the same in every port. The quantity of goods that we move in half an hour is not the same that other ports move. We move 80% of the cargo in this country," he says.
While Vargas says while in the beginning his port joined in on the strike to support demands made by workers in Mejillones, the half hour lunch has become a national topic.
He says the problem comes from how the agreement was reached. Now the Central Port does not want to continue with previous talks maintained with workers.
"This port has a different reality than other terminals. We are now starting to work under a new employer because we recently finished bidding. Before we would negotiate directly with the state, because they were the ones who administered it," he says
"Now the conditions have changed, and when they offer us the conditions offered at other ports, that doesn't help us because we're just now starting work."
Vargas emphasizes the originally requested CLP$10,000 lunch break is no longer on the table. San Antonio workers have lowered their request to CLP$4,000, which had been agreed upon but did not result in final negotiations.
For the spokesman, the problem could be ended by a single phone call that establishes CLP$4,000 for the lunch break. This possibility is far off, however, since the value announced by Minister Matthei is already firmly established.
"I'm in this because I have the support of all of the workers backing me. This is not a matter of being stubborn. It's a matter of valuing our work. We could have not supported Mejillones and gone for our negotiation. But we did, however, and now we're suffering," he said.
Impact on the fruit export sector
Vargas is clear on the significance that this movement has for the country's export industry, but he clarifies that this situation would not have happened had Ultramar reacted on time and listened to worker demands.
"I sympathize with what is happening with agricultural workers, because they are part of the chain and they have been hurt. But I have gotten their support and they have told me that, unfortunately, there is always a cost in these types of fights," he said.
On the topic of fruit, Vargas was categorical in saying that the issue with the product is that no port wants to take it due to the nuisance caused by shipping requirements.
"The amount of fruit tonnage moved is minimal. Today the port work boom is to move the containers and fruit is a problem. We're taking on all the problems in San Antonio and this is not a fruit port. For 20 years we haven't been a fruit port and because of the fly that appeared in Valparaíso, they are sending the fruit here," he says.
"I spoke with (ASOEX president) Ronald Bown and he told me the trouble this strike creates for the sector, not only for annual production but also for client that they must answer to."
According to Vargas, the fruit containers are now in Valparaíso and few are still in San Antonio, where the remainder are ready for exporters to take them.
"The fruit isn't on hold. Producers and exporters just have to come look for them. The problem is that there aren't workers to move these because of the stoppage," he explains.
Vargas adds that the fight should have broken out over something bigger that a lunch break.
With respect to mobilization in San Antonio, he says that in 90 days workers will meet to plan the next steps. For the moment, ships will continue to wait at sea and workers will continue to stay posted outside of the port.