July 2, 2015 / 6:45 PM / 5 years ago

Venezuela unions shut two Polar breweries as beer shortage looms

CARACAS, July 2 (Reuters) - Unions close to the Venezuelan government said on Thursday they had shut two breweries belonging to the country’s largest private company over a wage dispute, setting the stage for a potential shortage in the alcohol-loving nation.

Workers have walked out of Empresas Polar’s plants in Caracas and eastern Anzoategui state, as well as 16 distribution centers, said employees marching in the capital in protest.

“They’ve delayed our collective contract for over 20 months, and the company refuses to recognize our union,” said Jose Rojas, spokesman for one of at least two unions that helped shut the plants, before entering the public prosecutor’s office in Caracas to submit a complaint.

Polar has four breweries and distributes up to 80 percent of the country’s beer, which Venezuelans often sip on doorsteps during hot nights or on packed Caribbean beaches.

The company’s biggest union, which says it is independent, said workers close to socialist President Nicolas Maduro were striking to pre-empt a shortage of bottle caps and cases that is expected to force a halt to operations.

“They’re framing it as a labor dispute to hide the lack of raw materials,” said Jhonny Magdaleno, secretary general of the union at Cerveceria Polar, the company’s beer-making arm. “The only thing we want is raw materials; we don’t want a political show.”

Currency controls and flailing domestic production have led to severe shortages of basic goods, from milk and medicines to spare machine parts.

Last year Polar briefly halted production of pasta due to delays in foreign currency allocations from the government.

This latest dispute is poised to again heighten tensions between Polar and the government, which blames private companies and right-wing foes for hoarding and smuggling food in an attempt to create damaging shortages.

Maduro in past months has lashed out at Venezuela’s “pelucon,” a term for old, long-haired aristocrats. Local media and analysts interpret this as referring to Lorenzo Mendoza, Polar’s billionaire owner.

Polar and the government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The company is also famous for a brand of flour used for arepas, the grilled corn dough patty that is another staple food in short supply. (Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

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