Strikes bring strange mix of solidarity and struggle to Chilean fruit sector
Strikes in the Chilean Port of San Antonio have led to a "catastrophic and unsustainable" situation for the country's produce industry, according to Chilean Fruit Exporters Association (ASOEX) president Ronald Bown, who spoke at a press conference in the capital Santiago yesterday.
All fingers were pointed at the government for this problem that has become "practically natural", in the words of Bown, whether they were from representatives of ASOEX, the Chilean Fruit Growers Federation (Fedefruta), the Small Grower Triumph Confederation or the National Workers Union.
The shutdown is the second of its kind in the space of nine months.
The local press has revealed the outgoing government's former work minister Evelyn Matthei, who was defeated by a substantial margin in recent presidential elections, previously agreed that port workers had accumulated lunch break debts owed to them from 2005 and 2013, which confirms the reasons behind the current strike.
Despite this, government ministers have been reticient to do anything about the recurring problem, and president elect Michelle Bachelet has stayed well clear of this hot potato.
"This country cannot continue this way. No one can endorse that you can work without a half-hour lunch break, not in any productive sector in Chile," National Workers Union president Segundo Steilen told the conference.
"There are people who don’t want to understand what we have been discussing for a long time."
The union leader emphasized that last year's strikes were over the request of workers to "have a toilet break, something to eat".
"We are speaking of 2013 by the way. Not a past century, but now," Steilen said.
Bown, whose industry is already losing out financially and reputationally because of a conflict in which it is not directly involved, showed understanding for the plight of those caught in the port dispute.
"I share what Segundo says in terms of there being a bad administration of port issues on the part of the government over many decades, in which they have been solving problems in a partial way, 'mitigating' in inverted commas, and not really resolving in an indefinite way," Bown said.
"That’s why we hope the current authority and future authorities have a vision of the future in making the export activity more sustainable."
But the industry leader showed little sympathy for those government leaders who have claimed the strike is just an issue between "private entities".
"The port concessions belong to the state and are leased in a temporary way...more than that, there is a national problem. This is paralyzing an activity that supposedly is part of the vertebral column of the economy of the country, so the state obviously needs to be involved."
Fedefruta president Cristian Allendes said he was looking for dialogue, to find a solution that was best for workers but would not affect an activity like horticulture that is so important for the national economy, particularly in the regions outside the capital.
"Many of us are involved. We work for the whole year to harvest for a few months. This is what we lose," Allendes said.
"When a worker from another activity is on strike, they lose the days or the month of work – we lose a year of work."
The meeting was held prior to an announcement by the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI) that a deal was reached with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) so that Chilean blueberry shipments could be fumigated on arrival in the U.S., bringing greater options to shippers who were facing tightened requirements due to the discovery of Lobesia botrana.
"If we have the authorization but simply don't have the possibility to load the blueberries, this will be a heightened problem," Bown said.
"We are talking about approximately US$400 million [in blueberries] that would be lost in a couple of weeks, and therefore we believe that a solution to this problem must be found immediately.
"Beyond this weekend, we believe the situation will be barely manageable from an operational perspective because it will start to create problems in that we will not be able to keep harvesting the fruit, and therefore this means the loss of fruit."
In terms of another big export fruit, cherries, Bown said the majority of the crop managed to be sent before the strikes and was on course to arriving in Asia on time for the Chinese New Year.
A tough situation for small farmers
Small Grower Triumph Confederation representative Orlando Contreras agreed, but mentioned that 316 containers of cherries from his organizations' growers were still detained in the Port of San Antonio.
"We have finished up with cherries. The late varieties are complicated and they are stuck in the port...afterwards, because of the distance Chile has, the fruit doesn't arrive in the right condition."
He said many small growers were having to leave fruit on trees as they had no one to buy their crops.
"Adding to the frosts that we had, and the heatwave of these last couple of days, production has started speeding up. We are losing a lot of fruit.
"We call on the authority to solve the problem - it's clear. We totally agree that the workers are right in their demands, and we call on the president of the republic to solve the problem.
"We are in solidarity with the workers in that the problem has to be solved, but it is a problem that is worth less than the amount of millions we are losing."
He said there were also many growers who had made significant investments and were excited about starting their first export seasons in 2014, but the current conflict has complicated their opportunities.
"In all economic cycles, the most vulnerable is the small grower, they are the ones who lose."
The strikes have now extended to other ports such as Mejillones, Lirquén, Penco, Coronel, San Vicente, Huachipato and Schwager, but the country's second largest fruit-exporting port Valparaiso is still operational.
The Port of San Antonio ships around 33% of Chile's fresh fruit with Europe, the U.S., Latin America and Asia as its main destinations, representing US$1.425 billion in exports last season.
In the first week of January, 2014, national fruit shipments were down 28% year-on-year, due mainly to the San Antonio strike.
"This percentage means approximately 1,600,000 boxes with an FOB (freight on board) value of approximately US$24,000,000," Bown said in a release.