Santos customs strike escalates, spreads nationwide

Santos customs strike escalates, spreads nationwide

The port of Santos handled 3.6 million TEU last year. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Receita Federal (customs) officers in the port of Santos are escalating their slowdowns and strikes that began last week as volumes surge ahead of the Christmas holiday.

The escalation at Santos comes as the the customs union, Sindifisco, says that 7,000 members nationwide will also join with their colleagues in Santos, and it signals that the simmering dispute between the government and customs officials has now come to a boil and is about to overflow.

“This strike by our members will cause industry shortages and disruptions throughout the country,” said Renato Tavares, a director for Sindifisco in Santos. “The situation will be worse in Santos, because it is Brazil’s leading port, and also in the Manaus Free Trade Zone [in the Amazonas region]. Later, airports and access to borders with Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay will also be seriously impacted.”

The industrial action began on Wednesday last week, and for an indefinite period of time into the future customs will refuse to process cargo except for “essential and emergency,” products such as medicines, every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and will not use computers on Mondays and Friday, which makes those days de facto strike days.

Various sources said between 3,000 and 4,000 extra containers were currently waiting for clearance in Santos, which handles more than 40 percent of Brazil’s annual container throughput. Some 50 percent of Brazil’s GDP is concentrated in the hinterlands that rely on Santos for trade.

Cargo that normally takes just 24 hours for clearance is now taking close to five days, Tavares said, adding that each day of “all out action” in Santos alone would mean that 100 million reais ($25.9 million) did not flow into the coffers of Brasilia.

Exports, particularly of beef, have been affected the most, but imports are also delayed, and many Brazilians are worried that seasonal goods such as walnuts, chestnuts, cod fish, and Chinese decorations might not arrive in time for the Christmas festivities.

“This strike will cause losses in the clearance of export and import goods by increasing the deposit of containers at the terminals, and it will jeopardize the fulfilment of commitments made by exporters with international buyers,” said José Roque, the executive president of the Shipagents Association for Santos and the state of São Paulo. “This will not reflect well on Brazil’s ability to trade competitively with its international rivals.”

Sindifisco says it has no choice but to ratchet up its actions because the government has reneged on promises that include pay and pension increases and better benefits.

Henrique Meirelles, the head of the Finance Ministry, said that most of what Sindifisco asked for in terms of pay rises has been granted, but some of the raises have been delayed for one year. Sindifisco says that government efforts to increase the retirement age are also behind their strike.

Whatever the justification, shippers will suffer as the dispute drags on.

“We have already been experiencing delays of one or two days for clearance, and if this continues for another week we are expecting things to get much, much worse,” one beef shipper told JOC.com.

Contact Rob Ward at rcward788@btinternet.com.