UPDATE 1-Argentine grains exports hit by vaccine-related customs workers strike

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BUENOS AIRES, June 8 (Reuters) - Argentine grains exports were bogged down on Tuesday by a seven-hour strike by customs officers pressing for access to COVID-19 vaccines, the latest in a series of work stoppages tied to the slowly unfolding inoculation program.

Vaccine distribution has been delayed by supply problems in Argentina, prompting customs and other port workers to go on strike to pressure the government into designating them as essential workers entitled to inoculations on a priority basis.

“It is affecting all import and export operations,” Guillermo Wade, manager of the Chamber of Port and Maritime Activities (CAPyM), told Reuters.

Tugboat captains similarly walked off the job last month over access to vaccinations, as the South American grains powerhouse struggles with a second wave of infections at the height of its soy and corn harvests, Argentina’s two main cash crops.

“We are at the peak of the crop season and a huge export program, so any interruption in operations implies higher costs. We expect a prompt solution,” said Luis Zubizarreta, head of Argentina’s CPPC private ports chamber.

Argentina is the world’s No. 3 exporter of corn and the top supplier of soymeal livestock feed used to fatten hogs and poultry from Europe to Southeast Asia. The South American grains powerhouse also exports wheat, mostly to neighboring Brazil.

The strike - which was scheduled to run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. local time on Tuesday - was not expected to have a major impact on shipments. But exports could get bogged down if longer strikes are called.

“The measure began at 10 in the morning. We are receiving reports from colleagues in the port terminals and Ezeiza International Airport, which is obviously closed. All tasks having to do with foreign trade are going to suffer,” said Marcelo Bisurgi, spokesman for the SUPARA customs workers union.

He said talks over vaccine access are ongoing between customs officials and Argentina’s health ministry. “Until there is a solution we plan to continue intensifying measures and actions until we have some concrete answer,” Bisurgi said.

Exports from Argentina’s Pampas grains belt are the country’s top source of export dollars, which are needed to help fund the government’s COVID-19 relief efforts as the country wrestles its way out of an economic recession that started in 2018.

Almost 82,000 people in Argentina have died of COVID-19. Citing the recent uptick in cases and deaths, Argentina’s SOEA oilseeds workers union has threatened to walk out on Wednesday.

The SOEA oilseed crushing workers’ union in the Argentine ports hub of Rosario warned last week that it would call a strike if no deal was struck to start vaccinating its members by June 9.

SOEA official Daniel Succi said the union was in talks with provincial officials and the strike plan was on hold. “We’ll see how the talks progress,” he said. (Reporting by Hugh Bronstein and Maximilian Heath Editing by Paul Simao)