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UPDATE 3-Argentine port workers extend strike, halting grains exports

(Adds extension of the strike, and additional union joining the work stoppage)

By Hugh Bronstein and Walter Bianchi

BUENOS AIRES, May 19 (Reuters) - Argentina's grains exports were paralyzed on Wednesday after port workers launched a strike over what they described as a lack of COVID-19 vaccinations among members, the head of the Port and Maritime Activities chamber told Reuters by telephone.

In a statement, the port worker unions said the strike would run until late on Friday. Earlier the labor groups said they would end the work stoppage on Thursday, but they extended the strike due to what they called government inaction over their demands.

Dock workers who prepare ships to sail were among those on strike, along with tugboat captains and sailors who guide cargo ships to and from port, according to the statement. In addition, dock-side grains inspectors represented by the powerful Urgara union said on Wednesday they were joining the work stoppage.

"All shipping is stopped," Guillermo Wade, general manager of the CAPyM chamber, said.

Argentina is the world's top exporter of soymeal livestock feed, used to fatten hogs and poultry form Europe to Southeast Asia. The South American grains powerhouse is also the world's No. 3 corn supplier and a major wheat exporter.

The strike hits during the high export season as Argentine growers are currently harvesting their main cash crops of soy and corn.

The work stoppage halted activity at the ports hub of Rosario, from which about 80% of Argentina's agricultural commodities are shipped. The Rosario exchange expects this year's soy crop at 45 million tonnes and the corn harvest at 50 million tonnes.

"At least 7 ships were loaded yesterday in Rosario and ready to sail, but the unions halted the process of letting them unmoor," Wade said. Sailing even after the strike is over will be complicated due to the falling level of the Parana River, Wade said.

"Those seven ships, moored in the ports of Timbues, San Martin and San Lorenzo are now too heavy to sail, considering the increasing shallowness of the river," Wade said.

"Another 13 ships have stopped loading in order to avoid the same situation," he added.

Port workers are "essential" to the economy, and thus entitled to be vaccinated, the union statement said, adding that four workers had died of COVID-19 over the last week. Argentina confirmed a record 745 deaths from the virus nationwide on Tuesday.

"We request immediate intervention, so that crew members are incorporated as a priority in the national vaccination plan," the statement said. Among the signatories to the statement were the United Maritime Workers Union and the Fluvial Captains Professional Association.

A spokesman for the health ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the unions' demands.

The low level of the Parana has been a concern for some time, due to lack of rain in Brazil, where the waterway starts. The shallowness is worsening and has already shaved tonnage off the cargo capacity of ships loading in Rosario.

"The forecasts are not encouraging for the next few months," said Alfredo Sese, technical secretary at the Rosario grains exchange. Larger ships currently have to load more than 9,000 tonnes less cargo due to lack of river depth at Rosario ports.

"The level continues dropping," Wade said. "It appears that by the end of June and July, there will be more than 11,000 tonnes per Panamax cargo ship that will not be able to travel." (Reporting by Hugh Bronstein, Walter Bianchi and Eliana Raszewski; Editing by Adam Jourdan, Alistair Bell and Richard Pullin)

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