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Dockworkers strike compounds Portugal's problems

By Barry Hatton

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 9 2012 6:15 a.m. MST

Trucks sit idle outside the entrance of Lisbon's port Monday, Jan. 9 2012, the first day of a five-day strike by dock workers that shipping agents say will cost the ailing country millions of euros. The dockworkers unions called the strike to fight layoffs. Portugal is struggling under a huge debt burden and needed a euro78 billion ($99.5 billion) bailout last year to ward off bankruptcy.

Armando Franca, Associated Press

LISBON, Portugal — Portuguese dockworkers on Monday started a five-day strike that shipping agents estimated would cost the ailing country tens of millions of euros as it battles to break out of recession.

Around 64 percent of Portugal's foreign trade, including all oil imports, is conducted by sea.

Portugal is struggling under a huge debt burden and, like other eurozone countries Greece and Ireland, needed an international bailout to ward off bankruptcy. It received a rescue package amounting to €78 billion ($99.5 billion) last year.

Portugal went into a double-dip recession last year, and the contraction is forecast to continue through this year as austerity measures continue to bite. The jobless rate has climbed to a record 13.2 percent.

The government hopes exports, especially to emerging economies such as Brazil and Angola, with which Portugal has close ties, can help the country out of recession.

In some welcome news, the National Statistics Institute said Monday that exports rose 15.1 percent between September and November last year compared with the same period in 2010.

Antonio Belmar da Costa, executive director of the Portuguese Association of Shipping Agents, said he expected the strike would cost tens of millions of euros. However, he did not foresee significant shortages because, he said, many companies built up their stocks ahead of the walkout.

The Confederation of Maritime and Port Unions called the strike to fight layoffs.

It said the walkout would shut down most Portuguese ports, though shipping agents said the ports at Leixoes and Sines, where most oil is delivered, were working normally because workers there belonged to a union outside the confederation. Six other major ports were said to be at a virtual standstill.

The port strike is the latest labor dispute to test the center-right coalition government's commitment to restoring Portugal's fiscal health through deep spending cuts and broad tax hikes. Unions are fighting the measures.

Uncertainty about whether the government can pull off a turnaround in the country's fortunes has kept its borrowing rates high and made investors wary.

Alexandre Soares dos Santos, the head of Portugal's second-largest retailer Jeronimo Martins, said over the weekend he recently moved his holding company's headquarters to the Netherlands, which also uses the euro, from Lisbon, partly out of concern about whether his country might leave the eurozone.

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