December 19, 2013
Unions urge gov’t to extend BA port terminal concessions 25 years ‘now’
Workers want to benefit from what the federal administration and they say could be a private investment plan of at least US$600M to expand harbour capacity
The Port of Buenos Aires is the bone of contention between the centre-right administration of Mayor Mauricio Macri and Peronist President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who refuses to transfer its control to the City. However, workers — more concerned about jobs — are urging the nation to extend without delay port terminal concessions for 25 years to benefit from what the federal administration and they say could be a private investment plan of at least US$600 million.
Workers also complain of what they describe as a lack of dialogue with the national government and the absence of port policies since the sector was deregulated in 1992 under the administration of neo-conservative Peronist president Carlos Menem (1989-1999), and are demanding measures to address the asymmetries which harm Argentina within the Mercosur trade bloc.
“There is no port policy,” José “Pepe” Giancaspro, Secretary-General of the Union of Stevedore Foremen Port Senior Staff (SCEP) — one of the 16 unions forming the Maritime, Port and Naval Industry Federation (FeMPINRA) — tells the Herald in an interview. “There have been only partial, often spasmodic, measures,” says Juan Manuel Martínez Chas, a lawyer for FeMPINRA and the opposition faction of the General Labour Confederation (CGT) umbrella union led by teamster Hugo Moyano.
The national Under-Secretary for Ports and Waterways Horacio Tettamanti in June showed readiness to grant the Herald an interview but despite repeated calls to his office, it failed to materialize.
A CALL FOR DIALOGUE
Giancaspro says: “We at the port unions are tired of telling the authorities that we want a tripartite dialogue. We do not want decrees or resolutions without consensus with workers. In 1966 Decree No. 21,429 left a lot of people in the street; in 1992 under Menem, Decree No. 817 annulled more than 60 collective bargaining agreements and in 1995 another government resolution left more than 500 families in the street because Terminal 6 went broke. There are still people of that Terminal wandering around to see if they can get a job.” Martínez Chas adds: “For many years we have been requesting the Infrastructure and Labour Ministries to create a tripartite board on port dialogue to enable the representatives of workers and employers and the state to articulate long-term policies. There have been only partial, often spasmodic, cosmetic measures not addressing the real issue: what maritime and port development projects we need for Argentina within the framework of Mercosur and the increasingly globalized and competitive international politics.
“As a federation, and with the support of the CGT, we have proposed the construction of a National Council for Port Labour. It is not enough with the Argentine Port Council, a body which brings together all the authorities of the different public ports in the country. That entity is the government leg but it still lacks the production and labour legs.”
DE MARCHI ISLAND
The union representatives complain of a government plan to build a National Audiovisual Complex on De Marchi Island, an area of 155 hectares, compared to the 93 hectares for the storage and handling of containers.
“The De Marchi Island project is an aberration. Thankfully, now it has been suspended. I think that the intention is not to make a tourism project or anything like that but to sell land worth US$4,000-5,000 per square metre. Rather than a tourism project, it is a real estate business,” says Giancaspro.
Martínez Chas adds: “Buenos Aires is the engine to project a future for everybody without exclusions and there is no possibility of dispensing with any operating space. Scrapping De Marchi Island would simply be the death certificate of the Port of Buenos Aires because without it there is no national base for dredging and light-signalling system nor port terminals operations.”
According to Giancaspro, under a government plan, containers should move from ship to trucks and trucks should go straight to new Customs facilities that it plans to set up outside the port, in the Central Market and other areas.
“If this project goes ahead, fiscal warehouses will disappear. We had some meetings with Moyano and he said that the Central Market area will allocate 100 hectares to bring the containers there. But how many trucks will be then on the highway? Are we all going nuts? This is a whim of (Domestic Trade Secretary Guillermo) Moreno. Why not do it in the hundreds of hectares of the Ecological Reserve which is attached to the port and is of no use to anyone? Trucks would be there in three minutes. Besides, we need larger docks.”
In the face of the observation that Sergio Borrelli, the trustee of the General Ports Administration (AGP) — the national agency which manages the Port of Buenos Aires City — announced that the federal government was in talks with the three terminals operating in the port to assess their readiness to invest a total of US$600-700 million to expand the port with zero cost to the state, Giancaspro said:
“Terminal 5 (BACTSSA)’s concession expires in two years, and those of TRP (Terminal Río de la Plata) and Terminal 4 within four to five years. If the government waits that long to tender new ones, nobody will come here because large vessels will go to Uruguay and Brazil. These three terminals requested another 25 years and offered to invest US$600 million to make the changes needed, expand docks, dredging, etc. The terminals are already buying machines based on the promised extensions. But the government is delaying the thing. Why not give them those 25 years now so that money, which is a lot, comes in and they start making a more competitive port? They are waiting for the president to sign. Let’s do it now, not in two or three years. If the government waits, it will be of no use. We cannot compete with other ports. We can compete only with one thing: labour. No country in the world has workers as we have, Argentine workers are simply craftsmen. Among port authorities we have friendly people who listen to us. We’re talking to the AGP. We go there and we dialogue, but some people have other interests and don’t care if the port of Buenos Aires disappears. Before, Oscar Vecslir was the AGP trustee. The Terminal 5 concession was expiring. We went to talk to him and he granted it another three years. Workers are reassured. We not only defend the workers of Buenos Aires but those of all ports. We call on the new authorities AGP to grant the extension to the port terminals now.”
FEES AND COMPETITION
Besides, adds Giancaspro, the AGP raised fees, which are much higher than those of Montevideo. There are two fees, one charged on the area used and another on the cargo itself. If you are the owner of the cargo and fees rise, you take it to Montevideo. This is truly difficult to understand. Moreover, Buenos Aires also will have to compete with La Plata, which begins to operate more or less in March 2014 and is a very important, deep-water port which, contrary to that of Buenos Aires, does not need dredging. Exolgan (a terminal in Dock Sud, Avellaneda, Buenos Aires Province) also needs dredging.
With regard to the dispute between the nation and the city, which has been requesting jurisdiction over the port, Giancaspro says: “At this time we do not care much about this issue. Honestly, the City government is working to take control and it says that it defends the port. We hope that the president, with all due respect, puts experienced people in the port of Buenos Aires — she has them. But then, here intervenes Moreno with his whims. He promised that by mid-year imports would be allowed and nothing is being opened. If it is for the good of the country, okay... but there are even problems to get medicines due to the lack of components.”
Martínez Chas adds: “We workers feel that it is useless to discuss the issue of jurisdiction if it is not followed by comprehensive policy planning. The country has been lacking for years an integral planning to allow the port of Buenos Aires to be the recipient of the development of regional economies. The broad lines of infrastructure and policies for land, rail, air and commercial and maritime port transport are set by the state. The port is the port of the City. It is the nation’s federal port. The province of Buenos Aires only joined the Argentine Federation through the Pact of San José de Flores in 1859 after a long dispute over the control of the Customs of the port of Buenos Aires. One thing is the legal status and another the organizational-administrative one. When the national port sector was privatized as from 1992 with the deregulatory decrees of the Menem administration, the specifications of the Concession of the terminals of the Port of Buenos Aires (1994) foresaw something which failed to be implemented, the Port of Buenos Aires Managing Authority (SAP), which was to be made up of the national government, the City of Buenos Aires (which is autonomous since 1994) and representatives of the labour and production sectors. But, since then, the AGP has been under trusteeship and that management scheme was never launched.
“Now, ‘federal port’ is not to deny the possibility that Buenos Aires have a leading role in a future management, but nor can it, because of its being the capital of the country, fail to put the port at the service of national development. That would be to revive an ancient history of wars, of confrontation between Federalist and Unitarist factions, between Buenos Aires and the other provinces.”
ASYMMETRIES IN MERCOSUR
“In 2004 Kirchner signed Decree No. 1010 whereby cargo ships carrying Argentine cargo should carry the Argentine flag but this is not happening. Only a few ships carry it. The adoption of the flag-of-convenience policy was implemented by Menem by Decree 1772/91. So, Argentine ships with the flags of Chile, Bolivia and Paraguay, which are much cheaper, appeared. Business has no flag,” says Giancaspro.
“The issue has been discussed with the Foreign Ministry, Argentina lacks a waterway,” says Martínez Chas, referring to the waterway of the Paraguay-Paraná rivers born in Brazil and ending in the River Plate. According to projections, in the next six years cargo through this immense river corridor will grow 75 percent and we don’t have policies to support job creation, wealth, the promotion of regional economies and industries. And we see how the asymmetries of other Mercosur countries mock the decree that Kirchner announced with so much fanfare. The flag of convenience is more present than ever in our country’s waterways. Today we have fewer ships with the Argentine flag than before Kirchner’s decree.
“In addition, as the Port of Buenos Aires is directly affected by the ports of Santos, Montevideo, Zárate or Nueva Palmira (Uruguay) — and I do not want to go so far as to mention Singapore — we also have to demand Foreign Ministry compliance with the national protocol on equal opportunities for the waterway,” says Martínez Chas.
Borrelli told the Herald in June that the only asymmetries in the waterway took place with Paraguay.