Argentina looks to defuse grains ports tensions after coronavirus causes delays

By Maximilian Heath

BUENOS AIRES, March 17 (Reuters) - Argentina's transport ministry released measures on Tuesday to clarify rules for grains ports amid a coronavirus pandemic and help normalize activity that has been hit by delays after the country closed its borders to contain the virus.

The move comes after the disruptions at ports in the world's number one exporter of soy oil and meal, which is also the third largest seller of corn and unprocessed soybeans.

Argentine President Alberto Fernández on Sunday announced the closure of borders to non-residents for 15 days as a precautionary measure against the coronavirus. The South American country has recorded 65 cases and two deaths.

The measures port work due to some uncertainty about its scope and scale. The ports worker unions are also now threatening to carry out strike action over health concerns.

The country's Ministry of Transport in a statement clarified that the entry of goods vessels to Argentine ports would not be prohibited and foreign crew could disembark if needed if they had no symptoms and had sailed for over 14 days without docking.

"If the descent of the crew is not necessary for operations, they wont be able to disembark for 15 days," it added.

Ahead of the announcement a ministry source told Reuters that the new measures would "give clarity to the activity at the regulatory level and to the unions."

The URGARA grains unloader union said on Tuesday that coronavirus "contagion prevention measures" in port areas were not being complied with and that if clear protocols were not announced it would cease activities on Wednesday morning.

The head of the Argentine grain exporters and processors chamber, Gustavo Idígoras, said that while the text of the earlier decree published on Monday clarified the scope of the rule, there was still "disorientation" in ports and loading activity was not happening at normal levels.

Daniel Succi, the secretary of an oilseed workers union in Rosario, told Reuters that crushing plants were operating normally, though the union was asking firms to allow high-risk workers not to come to work to avoid exposure to the virus.

The port issue is occurring at a time of relatively low activity in Argentina with farmers just starting to harvest corn, while the soybean harvest starts in the coming weeks. (Reporting by Maximilian Heath; Writing by Adam Jourdan and Nicolas Misculin; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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