Port of Valparaiso

A nationwide strike of 400,000 government employees has left Chile's early fruit deal high and dry, unable to get the fruit loaded on boats and aircraft destined to foreign markets.

Fruit may not be exported from Chile until it has received clearance from government employees working as health and customs officials, leading to delays in loading cherries, blueberries, avocados and early season table grapes in particular.

Ronald Bown, president of ASOEX, Chile's fresh fruit exporters association, said losses this week could total US$30m 'if we are unable to make good on contracts we have in foreign countries'.

'We are right in the middle of our cherry harvest, with air shipments to foreign markets, and we are just beginning our Region VI blueberry harvest,' said Alvarao Larrondo, general manager of Terrafrut. 'The strike is impacting us in a tremendous way because everything at the port is at a standstill. We have lots and lots of fruit stored in our cold storage rooms, but we can't export the fruit because the SAG (Chile's animal and food authority) is completely on strike.'

Indeed, on Wednesday an estimated 30,000 government workers from allacross Chile gathered in the port city of Valparaiso to show theirunified demand for a 14.5 per cent across-the-board wage increase forthe nation's 400,000 public employees.

'We export about 50 tonnes of fresh fruit each day,' said Eduardo Castro of cherry export firm San Francisco Lo Garces. 'This strike is having a tremendous impact on us because we are not able to meet contract obligations we have with supermarkets abroad. The image of our company is also at stake, and the image of Chile.' Mr Castro estimated losses at US$300,000 so far.

Cherry exporters say that if the strike is not resolvedsoon, they will have to sell their fresh cherries on Chile's nationalmarket – losing 90 per cent of the value of their fruit.

Although the government has made concessions in its bargaining position by offering a 9.5 per cent pay hike to government employees, this has been rejected by union leaders who say 2008 inflation is pegged at 10 per cent.