Events took a turn for the worse for shippers in Brazil this week, as industrial action on a number of fronts was ramped up, culminating in a nationwide strike Thursday by members of the Sindifisco trade union, which represents the Receita Federal (RF or customs officers), and who took action because Brasilia had promised to pay them a raise and other benefits, but has failed to deliver it after two years — with Thursday being the two-year anniversary of the non-payment.
Since that promise two years ago, Brazil’s beleaguered Temer administration has implemented a fiscal austerity campaign and therefore claimed it had insufficient cash in its coffers to pay for the extra benefits and raises. This then led to regular, weekly ‘do slows’ and ‘work rules,’ along with occasional days of strike action, but not all were as universally observed as Thursday’s.
Shippers were hit especially hard Thursday by the RF strike on the border of Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina, its Mercosur trade bloc neighbors. There, 200 trucks have been stuck at the border of Paraguay and Brazil, at Ponta Porã, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, since Wednesday morning. This stemmed from an accumulation of the strikes and ‘go slows’ that Sindifisco has been coordinating throughout Brazil since October 2017. At Ponta Porã, the RF usually gives clearance for 150 trucks per day, but that has now reduced to 40 per day, at best, and the all-out strike Thursday has caused the backlog. There have been similar delays at Santos, Rio de Janeiro, and other leading container ports.
The bad week in Santos started on Monday, when various labor unions in Latin America’s largest container ports, including Sindestiva (the stevedores union), held a protest march outside the offices of the Santos Port Operators Association (Sopesp) to complain about new shift patterns, demand a 10 percent pay raise, and to insist that OGMO, the casual labor pool, be granted 50 percent of all work at four of Santos’s five container terminals, instead of 33 percent. Port operators want the 33 percent reduced to 25 percent, in accordance with agreements made four years ago.
Then on Wednesday Sindestiva plus other unions — such as the Union of Crane Operators and Forklift Truck Drivers and the Union of Port Workers of Santos and Baixada Region — held meetings with Sopesp and the Ministry of Labor to try to resolve the impasse. The stevedores carried out various "operacoes padroes" (work rules) operations on Wednesday and Thursday, and all unions are threatening strike action over the next few weeks if the problem is not resolved. However, they have also agreed to a truce, for the time being.
Major delays for importers
José Roque, the executive president for Sindamar, the São Paulo and Santos Ship Agents Association, said that the strike by the auditors of the RF had caused major problems for shippers, especially importers, who were now seeing between 15 and 20 percent of their import containers being cleared about 20 days after unloading. The usual clearance period in Santos is about three to five days.
“The same situation continues and the planning minister has not yet authorized the bonus promised to the Receita Federal Auditors,” Roque told JOC.com. “As long as this bonus is not paid, the strikes look like they will continue. The worst part of this is that many imports are now taking up to 20 days to be cleared.”
Considering the RF strike has been ongoing since last October, many in Brazilian maritime and trade circles are surprised that the dislocations and delays have not been even worse in recent weeks.
“There are two main reasons these long-running actions have not had more impact,” said one shipping agent, who spoke on condition he not be identified. “The first is that the setting up of automated systems of cargo clearance have sped up the process and reduced the number of inspections required. And the second reason is that the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 is somewhat ambivalent when it comes to public sector workers going out on strike, or ‘go slow’ actions. One judge recently ruled that public sector strikes cannot ‘interrupt the provision of public services,’ but now the unions are appealing against that.”
On the question of strikes by stevedores in Santos, Roque said that they would only affect the port operations in the public port area and not in the private terminals, such as the DP World Santos terminal on the left bank of the Port of Santos.
“The stevedores' threat to strike is proceeding,” said Roque, “but they can only make on-board [ship] protests and not work their shifts there. This impact would only be on the public dock companies, and will not affect private terminals.”
Contact Rob Ward at email@example.com.