Latin America

Strike threatens to leave Venezuela with a beer shortage

Small pro-government union calls for work-stoppages at country’s biggest brewer

Polar Industries, one of the biggest breweries in Venezuela, has recently been facing problems due to shortages of grain and other raw materials essential to keep its production flowing. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, the company is also now saddled with a serious labor dispute, which has slowed down bottling and distribution of the country’s most popular beers.

Since last Wednesday, a small pro-government union, Sintraterricentro, has been calling work stoppages at Polar bottling plants in Caracas and Barcelona – a city in Anzoátegui state on Venezuela’s eastern coast – as well as at distribution points across the country after company officials refused to negotiate with its members.

Venezuelans may find themselves without their favorite beer by August, when supplies will dry up

Polar beer is considered a staple for many Venezuelans – it is the most common brand found at bars and in restaurants throughout the country. But there is growing concern that their favorite beverage could disappear altogether in the coming months if the dispute isn’t resolved.

Venezuela’s state-run television stations have been providing union leaders with full coverage of the labor conflict, which was initiated by Sintraterricentro. Some labor officials have made no attempt to hide their ties to the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

The brewery is part of Polar Industries, a powerful food-distribution conglomerate that has operated in the country for more than 60 years and has become one of the targets of President Nicolás Maduro’s so-called “economic war” on speculation and shortages.

But the shortages caused by the government’s economic policies have only made it worse for companies like Polar Industries, which are facing problems importing raw materials.

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The Venezuelan Chamber of Beer Breweries (Caveface) – which groups together Polar and another popular beer, Regional, which belongs to the powerful Cisneros Organization – reported that production is at an all-time low because of the unavailability of grain and other materials.

Beer-makers do not receive dollars at the government’s preferential rate, which was introduced in 2003, and owed an estimated $217 million to their international suppliers at the end of 2014, according to the chamber.

If the situation continues, Caveface believes that Venezuela will run out of beer by August, when its current inventory dries up.

In recent speeches, President Maduro has suggested that the owner of Polar Industries, Lorenzo Mendoza, does not want to respect the rights of the workers. The president has even gone as far as insulting the food distribution magnate, calling him “hairpiece.”

Polar officials have said that Sintraterricentro workers signed on to the collective-bargaining agreement last January with the company’s biggest union Sutraba, which has 1,400 members, and refused to negotiate with the small union because the contract is valid for two-and-a-half years.

Polar representatives have also said that Sintraterricentro members enjoy the same benefits as the rest of the company’s workers.

Breweries owed an estimated $217 million to their international suppliers at the end of the 2014

Still, the budding union has shown that it can flex some muscle. Although it represents just less than one percent of all Polar employees, it was able to drum up support among co-workers from another union at the Los Cortijos bottling plants in Caracas and in Anzoátegui to slow down production.

Tarek William Saab, the government’s public defender, has offered to mediate in the dispute but Polar has declined, saying that he isn’t an impartial official.

“They have made false, injurious, defamatory and other baseless accusations,” Saab wrote on his Twitter account.

English version by Martin Delfín.