The Caribbean ports of Limón and Moín, which handle roughly four-fifths of the country’s maritime cargo, are returning to normal after an ongoing labor dispute hobbled transports.
The two-week dispute, which reached its peak last week when protesting port workers reduced production to between quarter and half capacity, has caused widespread shipping delays and substantial losses for exporters and importers.
Business groups estimate the losses in the millions of dollars. Exporters of pineapples, melons and other perishables, a share of which spoiled as they waited to be loaded onto ships, were particularly affected.
“We are very worried by how the ports situation has been managed,” said Marco Fidel Tristán, vice president of the Chamber of Exporters (CADEXCO). “We are very upset. [The government] did not give it the importance it required.”
Tristán also accused the government of handling the problem in a secretive way and failing to keep the business sector abreast of what has been going on.
The dispute began May 29 when members of the Atlantic Port Authority’s (JAPDEVA) workers union reduced the number of hours worked from 24 a day to between six and 12, depending on the day.
The group was protesting an announcement by the Comptroller General’s Office ordering JAPDEVA to stop paying workers overtime regularly and honor a collective bargaining agreement between the institution and the union mandating four six-hour work shifts a day.
The decision, which threatened to substantially reduce workers’ take home pay, prompted union members to strike, nearly paralyzing the ports. Prior to the comptroller’s decision, the port had been operating in three eight-hour shifts a day with workers earning overtime during the final two hours of their shifts.
To operate four shifts a day without having some workers doing double duty, JAPDEVA would need to hire approximately 260 additional employees. Having some work two shifts a day would require that they be paid overtime, which the comptroller prohibited.
As a temporary solution, the government, JAPDEVA and the union are finalizing an agreement to operate the port in four sixhour shifts with the fourth shift being manned by employees receiving overtime.
JAPDEVA’s ability to pay these overtime shifts will depend on receiving a green light from the Comptroller General’s Office, according to Danny Morris, JAPDEVA’s ports manager.
The agreement is a gamble for workers, who might not receive overtime if the comptroller rejects the agreement. “This is something the workers are doing because they love their institution,” said Ronald Blear, secretary general of JAPDEVA’s labor union.
“JAPDEVA has given a lot to the workers and the province of Limón.”
The agreement is a short-term fix to long-running problems involving overtime at JAPDEVA. Since 2002, the institution has, under orders from the comptroller, been attempting to streamline workers’ shifts to minimize overtime pay.
Once the current dispute is resolved, JAPDEVA will attempt to renogotiate with the union the collective bargaining agreement to formalize the use of eight-hour shifts. Such a schedule would be more efficient than four shifts because a great deal of time is lost during the shift changes, Morris said.
Marco Vargas, institutional coordination minister, told The Tico Times that if the union opposes the plan to renegotiate the collective bargaining agreement, the government will be forced to consider less desirable options. The first option is to hire workers from the private sector to work the additional shifts. This, however, would result in further conflict with the unions. Another plan would be to expand JAPDEVA’s payroll by 260 workers to operate in six-hour shifts, he said.
The latter option, Vargas said, is also undesirable because it is inconsistent with the government’s plans to award a private firm a public works concession to operate and expand the ports.
Vargas said disputes such as these will become a thing of the past if the government succeeds in its plan to grant a concession for the Caribbean ports, which in 2007 constituted Latin America’s ninth busiest port complex in volume. Caldera, the country’s main Pacific shipping port, has been privately managed since 2006.
The government has hired Dutch firm Royal Haskoning to do a master plan outlining how the ports should develop over the next 30 years and German firm Hamburg Port Consulting to assist it in preparing the call for bids.
Vargas expects the master plan to be ready by the end of the month. He said he hopes the bidding process will take place as early as September with a winner selected six months after that.
Blear accused the government of dragging out the current labor dispute with the intent of discrediting JAPDEVA and strengthening the case for a concession.
The union opposes the proposed concession. Blear argues capacity and efficiency can be increased without transferring control to a private firm. JAPDEVA is a profitable institution that contributes to Limon’s development, he noted.
Members of the union have warned of social upheaval if the government moves forward. “We will defend this to the death,” said Antonio Wells, the union’s undersecretary. “The port is all Limón has left. JAPDEVA is the province’s heart.”
While neutral on the issue, CADEXCO representatives also accuse the government of using the strike to advance its concession plans. “The government jumped on the issue and treated concessions as the only solution,” Tristán said. “We don’t accept what happened as an excuse to justify a concession.”