Pig farmers and dock workers have a lot in common

Pork producers and dock workers may be worlds apart in Costa Rica, but their situations are similar.

The pork producers are dwindling because U.S. meat packers can put their product here cheaper than locals can.

The dock workers, who have propelled Costa Rica into the basement of efficiency ratings, continue to oppose a $1 billion container handling facility that is to be constructed by APM Terminals, a Dutch firm.

Both groups brought their complaints to the legislature in different sessions Tuesday.

The pork producers claimed unfair trade practices when their representatives of the Cámara Nacional de Porcicultores appeared before the Comisión de Asuntos Agropecuarios. The representatives, Renato Alvarado Rivera, Fausto Gómez Céspedes and Sergio Hidalgo, said that the number of pork producers in Cost Rica has declined to 6,500 from an estimated 12,000 in 1994. They said that there would be 2,000 fewer soon.

The trio claimed that foreign pork packers are filling their meat with water and holding it in a frozen condition for six months.

The real problem is that producers here are in competition with the finest agricultural machine the world has ever seen. Six years ago the current situation was predictable. A trade delegation from the U.S. State of Iowa was in town to drum up business. Among the visitors were representatives of John Morrel & Co., the big meat packer.

Iowa has five pigs for every resident, and the state butchers 25 million pigs each year, said one employee. That was before the free trade treaty with the United States won approval in a referendum. The employee said then that with the treaty, his firm could put pork in local stores at a price lower than the cost of production here.

And they would not be frozen, he said. The company vacuum packs its products and ships them in containers.

And Iowa is just one of many U.S. agricultural states.
They were not at the legislature Tuesday, but rice farmers are having the same problem. Rice from
foreign sources is cheaper than the locally grown grain that has been subsidized by the government for years.

The dock workers union spokesmen are unhappy about an exclusivity clause in the concession agreement with APM Terminals that gives the firm a monopoly over container shipments at the Limón port. This is identified as Clause 9 in the concession contract.

Union representatives met with executives of the terminal firm and a representative of the Defensoría de los Habitantes at the Asamblea Legislativa. Lawmakers were there, too.

The union representatives sought a second meeting for the purpose of negotiating over this particular clause. The public docks at which about 1,000 union members work would be out of business without container traffic.

Rogelio Douglas, terminal manager, said he would confer with others in the company, according to a source that attended the session. In exchange, the union appears prepared to drop legal action that it has initiated against the concession contract.

Union workers just went on strike for four days to push their point. In return for the workers going back on the job, the central government promised to invest $70 million in the public docks. The docks are run by the Junta Administradora de Desarrollo Económico de la Vertiente Atlántica, a government agency.

Even with a major government investment, the public docks would continue to be plagued by history of both inefficiency and unreliable workers who have walked out frequently.

And APM Terminals might cancel the firm’s $1 billion plan if officials begin to tinker with a contract that already has been approved and signed.

One of the major selling points of the free trade treaty was to subject Costa Rica to all forms of world competition to enhance its operations or to channel efforts to jobs Ticos can do well or to products the country can produce at an advantage.

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