In the dark of night, the government sent hundreds of National Police to intervene early yesterday morning in a costly slow-motion port worker protest at the nation’s two biggest seaports.
Saying the protests had cost the government $5 million due to backed-up trucks and boats waiting to move cargo through the Caribbean port of Moín, Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal announced yesterday at Casa Presidencial that 260 national police took over the port at 1:15 a.m., resulting in one arrest.
Workers at Moín and the nearby, smaller port of Limón had been protesting since Monday the government’s plan to privatize the management of the ports. Port employees had been employing tortuguismo, slowing down their productivity to a minimum.
Leroy Perez, spokesman for the Union of Caribbean Port Workers (SINTRAJAB), called the intervention “illegal” and “arbitrary,” and said the union would be meeting with other unions yesterday afternoon to consider strikes that could begin today.
There was also a police presence in the Limón port yesterday, though there were mixed reports as to when police intervened in that port and to what extent.
When asked by the Tico Times why the operation took place at night, Berrocal said the decision to intervene was made late Wednesday night at Casa Presidencial, when authorities felt the costly protest could not go on any longer.
“The port was totally paralyzed,” Berrocal said.He added that only one person, a forklift operator, resisted the intervention, and was arrested. Perez decried the arrest of the forklift operator, Luis Gran.
“In no moment did he violate the law. (Security officials) said he was working too slow. He refused to work faster, and so they arrested him,” Perez told the Tico Times in a phone interview from Limón.
“That’s new to me. I thought police were supposed to regulate violence, not make people work,” Perez said, speaking while visiting Limón neighborhoods in a caravan trying to rile up support for a protest.
Police presence continued through the day at the ports and throughout Limón yesterday. Berrocal said this presence would be maintained as needed.
“We’ve been able (to police the ports) so far, and we will be able to (continue)… I hope,” he said.
The Ministry of the Presidency, Rodrigo Arias, called the intervention “peaceful.”
“The port is operating completely normally as of today,”Arias said.
The clash between workers and the government comes more than a month after the central Pacific port of Caldera privatized its management (TT, Aug. 8), laying off hundreds of government workers, and after the Arias administration announced privatization plans at the Caribbean ports.
Pérez said the union opposes such privatization. According to the union representative, SINTRAJAB submitted its own plan to modernize the Caribbean ports which would not entail privatization.
However, as was made apparent by the late-night intervention, the government is not willing to budge. At yesterday’s press conference, Inter-Institutional Coordination Minister Marco Vargas said the government will hold firm in its plans to concession out the administration of the ports as part of a Limón development project under way since the previous administration.
Arias echoed Vargas’ position, calling JAPDEVA’s demand not to privatize the Atlantic ports “unacceptable.”
The protest drew fire all week from the administration and the Union of Private Sector Chambers and Associations (UCCAEP), which represents 41 private business chambers. UCCAEP called Wednesday for the government to “immediately intervene,” and decried “millions” in losses for exporters, particularly those whose products include perishable fruit and vegetables, due to the protests.
“The harmful practices not only affect businesses by delaying exports… but it also puts the labor security of thousands of Costa Ricans who work in the private sector at risk,” said UCCAEP president Rafael Carrillo.
Vargas said he hopes the ports can be privatized within four years. He explained that most workers would be given severance pay, and 30% of them could get retirement benefits.
According to Vargas, layoffs could be mitigated by the “LimónPortCity” project, a $70 million undertaking with funding from the World Bank and the government of Japan, designed to renovate the city.
He said the project could create thousands of jobs in the long term.
The workers were also protesting that the government has not yet paid workers $860,000 in extra pay as agreed upon in a recent collective convention. This week’s port slowdown sent the administration scrambling to give union workers the extra pay, settling the three-year-long struggle between port employees and the government.
Despite union requests for labor benefits to be covered by tariffs, the Public Services Regulatory Authority (ARESEP) didn’t include the payments in its 2003 tariff expenditures, which set off a bitter battle between the union and the government, according to ARESEP spokeswoman Carolina Mora.
The government decided to pluck funds from the massive budget surplus of the Atlantic Port Authority (JAPDEVA), which JAPDEVA officials say is locked in a bureaucratic bungle.
However, ARESEP said in a statement Monday that JAPDEVA can decide on its own how to spend its $19.3 million budget surplus.
JAPDEVA has accrued the surplus from tariffs on goods coming through the ports during the past 10 years. This amount now represents nearly half of the institution’s annual budget.
“By law, a public institution can’t have profits… It’s the JAPDEVA administration’s fault (that such a surplus exists). An institution can’t continue to gain a surplus that they don’t reinvest,” said Mora.
Mora said that due to the growing surplus, ARESEP is looking into the possibility of reducing tariffs on goods at the Caribbean ports.
However, JAPDEVA spokesman Israel Ocontrillo said JAPDEVA has been trying to reinvest its surpluses, but that those plans are often steeped in bureaucratic limbo.
“We have to request permission to reinvest. It’s very bureaucratic to work here,” Ocontrillo told The Tico Times, adding that to use the funds, JAPDEVA’s expenditures must be approved by the Comptroller General’s Office as well as the Federal Budget Authority.
Ocontrillo said JAPDEVA expected to have paid the workers by today.