The strike that kept pigs from market slices into Danish economy

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Denmark has a serious pig problem. In any other country a problem over pigs would pale before loftier concerns. But in Denmark pigs are big business.

The current fuss involves the country's 19,000 slaughterhouse workers, who struck for two weeks in April. The strike halted all exports of pork products, which accounts for 11.5 percent of the country's foreign earnings. The workers are back on the job now after the government intervened to settle the dispute.

But officials say it will be October before the slaughterhouses can work their way through a backlog of 750,000 pigs built up during the strike. The loss will be enormous.

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"IT was the first time in my memory that the entire slaughterhouse work force went out on strike," says Niels Jorgensen, of the pork export association, ESS-Food, adding that the country was losing 320 million kroner (about $46 million) a week in foreign revenue during the strike. It will take five months to catch up.

In Denmark pigs mean money -- big money -- and when the pigs don't go to market, the country suffers.

Denmark, the world's largest exporter of bacon, last year sent abroad 10.7 billion kroner (about $1.5 billion) in pig products, according to ESS-Food. Pig farming is the largest single agricultural activity in Denmark, and in a country of 5 million people, 11 million pigs are slaughtered every year. Half the bacon eaten in Britain is Danish.

The farmers who raise the pigs, meanwhile, have lodged their own complaint with the government over the present crisis, arguing that they should be compensated for the low prices the 750,000 still-unslaughtered (and overweight) pigs will bring at the market.

They also want conpensation for the extra feed they had to buy to sustain their charges beyond the scheduled slaughtering time. To make matters worse, the pork market in Britain and elsewhere is already oversupplied, forcing prices even lower.

Denmark's labor force of 2.5 million loses very few days to strikes, by European standards. But every two years, when wage agreements are negotiated, there are outbreaks of discontent.

The wage settlements reached in January and February, which means hikes of 7 to 8 percent in 1981 and 9 to 10 percent in 1982, were among the most moderate in two decades. Now some unions are waking up to that fact and threatening to follow the slaughterhouse workers on the strike path, knowing that the government will probably step in and force them back to work.

Some strikes have already been staged. A strike (and lock-out) of printers, which began March 27, has closed most newspapers and magazines in Denmark, and there have been slowdowns by air traffic controllers.

But it is the slaughterhouse strike that set the country on its ear. "The other sectors of the economy don't wield the power that agriculture does," an economists said. "Three-quarters of our agricutural production is sold abroad."

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