Argentine commodities suffer over strike at grain ports

Feb. 2, 2011 at 4:04 PM
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BUENOS AIRES, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner ordered leaders of dock workers' unions to end strikes that threaten to cripple the Latin American country's exports of grain and other commodities.

Striking workers at Argentina's grain outlets for international shipping added to a crisis developing since last year over the effect of La Nina weather phenomenon on crops, including drought and unseasonal climate conditions that are putting agriculture at risk.

Labor Ministry officials said the president ordered the workers' representatives to end the week-old strike and start reconciliation talks. As a compromise officials suggested a 15-day moratorium on the strike, leaving the workers with the option to resume their industrial action if the talks fail.

The presidential order for both sides to take part in compulsory conciliation was to take effect Wednesday but neither side seemed to be heeding it, requiring more urgent canvassing by government representatives.

Fernandez intervened after the Santa Fe province, Argentina's grain and vegetable oil hub, called for urgent assistance to help end the stoppage. Losses due to blocked grain shipments could be colossal, industry sources warned in media comments.

Fernandez condemned the protests and workers' resort to strikes, which she warned would exacerbate conflict and play into the hands of opponents of the "Kirchnerite model" -- economic policies pursued by her and erstwhile president and late husband Nestor Kirchner.

Fernandez accused workers' leaders of being under the influence of "neo-liberal ideology."

Fernandez said: "I ask union leaders to keep fighting for the rights of their members. But please remember this is a government that has made our minimum salary the highest in Latin America."

Chicago corn and soybean futures advanced to 30-month highs as vessels carrying both crops from Argentina remained blocked by the port workers' strikes.

Argentina's corn and soybean prices also rose in response to anxiety over a lack of rainfall that has prompted producer groups to lower yield forecasts.

Poor rainfall began worrying agriculture industry in December in response to La Nina diminishing rain over Argentina. U.S. and Latin American meteorological centers said drought conditions could deepen through the first quarter of 2011.

Officials said estimates for Argentine corn yields were down from 25 million tons in December to 20 million tons and didn't rule out further downgrades as the dry season persisted.

Soybean crops were also affected by La Nina phenomenon, agriculture industry sources said.

The combination of poor rainfall totals and above average temperatures pose threats to corn pollination and soybean developing for a satisfactory harvest and officials say the strikes aren't helping the overall outlook for Argentina's grain exports.

Amid forecasts of declining corn yields, prices have risen more than 45 percent within a year, partly in response to growing demand and stockpiling by China, and replenishing of stocks in the United States. That has compensated Argentine exporters somewhat but declining yields and blocked exports are major worries for the traders.

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