Costa Rica: port workers strike again in anti-privatization struggle

The 1,500 workers in Costa Rica’s two Caribbean ports, Limón and Moín, went on strike on June 12 to oppose a 30-year concession the government of President Laura Chinchilla has granted to a Netherlands-based container management multinational, APM Terminals. The two ports handle about 80% of the country’s international trade.

The strike quickly shut down shipping operations, leading to a loss of some 300 million colones ($600,000) in its first 36 hours, according to Alan Hidalgo, the head of the Board of Port Administration and Economic Development of the Atlantic Shelf (JAPDEVA), which manages the ports. On June 14 the government sent some 500 police agents to the ports, with specialized units from the Ministry of Public Security taking control of Costa Rica’s two main roads. Clashes broke out in Limón between police and unidentified persons who set a truck on fire and blocked roads with ditches.

The “acts of vandalism aren’t by the workers but by common criminals,” José Luis Castillo, the head of the JAPDEVA Workers Union (SINTRAJAP), said on June 15. Union leaders charged that the authorities had brought in Panamanian workers to staff the facilities but said the Limón port was only operating at 5% capacity despite the presence of police and strikebreakers. According to Castillo, 100% of the Costa Rican workers were participating in the strike.

The job action was the latest phase of the workers’ fight against government moves for complete privatization of the ports, which started in 2006 with a plan to sell off JAPDEVA. The union agreed in principle to the privatization of JAPDEVA in May 2010, but the concession granted to APM Terminals appears to be the first step putting the agreement in practice. The multinational is to invest some $990 million in building a port that can handle the larger ships that will take advantage of the expanded Panama Canal starting in 2014. The government claims that the building and operation of the facility, to be completed in 2016, will create 2,000 jobs directly and another 8,000 indirectly. The workers argue that the concession gives the company a monopoly over the ports and will lead to a loss of jobs.

The government and the union reached an accord on June 19 after a 15-hour negotiating session. The union agreed to end the strike, while the government promised to invest $70 million in modernizing the existing port facilities. Castillo called the strike a “first round” in the struggle against the APM concession, with subsequent actions to take place in the courts. Meanwhile, other unions are planning a one-day strike on June 26 against the government’s fiscal policies and in support of the port workers. (Prensa Latina, June 14; AFP, June 15, via Terra, Peru; EFE, June 19, via Siglo 21, Guatemala)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 24.

See our last posts on Costa Rica and Central America.