The fishing industry conflict in Patagonia's Puerto Deseado where striking workers torched six processing plants and has ceased all activities in the sector for almost a month is far from a solution and could further escalate, warn local authorities.
On Tuesday fishing vessel and plant owners showed videos of the destruction caused in the plants and stated that they will stand firm in their position of no further salary or benefit increases. On hearing the comments the delegation of strikers that was holding a round of talks sponsored by the Governor of Santa Cruz province in the capital Rio Gallegos ordered local pickets to again block the Puerto Deseado Industrial Park where most processing plants are located. Meantime Governor Daniel Peralta traveled to Buenos Aires to report to the federal government and supposedly "receive instructions" since Santa Cruz is President Nestor Kirchner's political turf. A further unexpected ingredient will be playing a part next week when Spain's vice-president Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega arrives in Argentina for a short visit already programmed but which will necessarily include the Puerto Deseado conflict since most of the torched processing plants are joint ventures with Spanish companies. The striking Santa Cruz chapter of the United Maritime Workers Union has virtually rebelled from the union's national organization and together with the Gathering of Santa Cruz Crewmembers are insisting in a hefty productivity bonus that the industry rejects, arguing salary rises have already been extended and crewmembers income is "dollarized", which means that over 50% of the fishing vessels turnover ends up as salaries. "Companies offered us an additional 80 US dollars for those of us living in Puerto Deseado which is a mockery. We want increases linked to the industry's productivity which means we'll make more money when companies win and less money when they loose", said Daniel Medina one of the strikers' leaders. However the industry argues that "representation conflicts in the union can't become a standing demand for increased salaries", said Alfredo Pot president of Argentina's High Seas Fishing Industry Chamber, Capeca, and whose Santa Elena plant was set on fire by strikers last July 20. The United Maritime Workers Union which is closely aligned with the administration of President Kirchner accepted at national level the latest salary and benefits agreements but the local Santa Cruz branch rejected it and even bashed and expelled delegates sent from Buenos Aires to supervise and take over the Puerto Deseado union. "Since this vandalism occurred, unheard of in Argentina and in any other fisheries of the world, there have been high level contacts between the Spanish and Argentine governments, and they tell us these have been positive", said Ruben Celaya Martinez president of Abrumasa another Spanish origin processing plant that had its deposits destroyed by fire. "We want solutions; we want Justice to act and an end to these excesses so we can go on working. We have nine different unions on board the vessels. You can't pretend that we should also be challenged by plant unions in each port" complained Pot. However Medina insisted that the production participation percentage be increased from 0.85% to 1.20% insisting "crewmembers want to share profits when good fishing and losses if catches are poor". Fishing companies argue that the 80 US dollars offer plus the modifications to taxing decreed by the Kirchner administration which elevated the taxable minimum on earnings "represents a significant increase". The Santa Cruz fishing industry has been paralyzed since last July 3 and the plants were torched July 20. Governor Peralta is acting a mediator but so far the round of talks in Rio Gallegos has been unable to break the deadlock. Peralta to gain trust from the striking union even threatened companies with revoking licences "because they have been making a lot of money". But the fact is that with less than three months to October 28 presidential election and Mrs Kirchner as the leading candidate, the conflict has become a delicate campaign issue because of its national impact. In neighboring Chubut where fisheries is also a main industry, fearing the conflict could spread, the Governor, industry and unions signed a "peace, non aggression" agreement to ensure activities continue. Meanwhile further north in Mar del Plata another conflict with fisheries unions is also deadlocked with acts of violence but not to the extent experienced in Santa Cruz.