As many of you will already know, Argentina is currently experiencing problems affecting the agricultural commodities sector. A poor domestic wheat yield led the government to impose “temporary” export restrictions in November 2007. These were lifted in December then re-imposed. They are still in place today. The problems created by governmental moves to regulate exports have now been compounded by strike action in the agricultural sector. It is widely reported that these strikes are said to be preventing a normal flow of grain and soya to and from warehouses and to ports for export.
This document is the first of two client alerts which consider the impact on international sales of unforeseen events such as these. This client alert in particular seeks to highlight some of the contractual issues that arise in light of the general strikes reportedly taking place and the effect of such events on contracts for the sale of Argentine commodities.
A second client alert dealing with “prohibitions” and government restrictions on exports, many of which have been the subject of extensive media coverage, will follow.
What is the current factual situation?
By it’s decree of 11 March 2008, the Argentinian Government imposed higher taxes on exports of soyabeans and other crops. The National Agricultural, Cattle and Industrial Sector reacted to this move by commencing its strike on 13 March 2008, initially for a period of seven days. The strike was subsequently extended, and remained in place until April 2, when a 30 day “suspension” of the strike was reportedly declared by the farmers.
On 25 March 2008, Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernández, gave a nationally televised address in which she declared that the export taxes would be maintained. The Argentina Agriculture Federation reacted to this message by declaring that the strikes would continue for “as long as necessary.” There appears to be significant public support for the strikers, with reports of demonstrations being held in support of the farmers last week. Negotiations aimed at resolving the situation over the weekend of 28-30 March 2008 proved unsuccessful. Therefore, it remains unclear whether the suspension will become permanent.
It is difficult to determine precisely how far-reaching the strikes are and which areas are affected. There have been reports of trucking routes being disrupted in the Buenos Aries province, Cordoba, Rosario and many other parts of the country. By way of an example of the level of disruption caused, it has been reported that as few as 23 trucks reached Rosario port on 25 March, where the port would normally expect to receive between 5,000 and 6,000 trucks on a normal March day. Clearly, it may take some time for the situation to return to normal, even after the suspension of the strike.
How (if at all) does this affect your contract?
As a starting point, pre-shipment obstacles generally do not affect delivery obligations under shipment-based sale contracts (e.g. on CIF, CFR and C&F terms) which do not identify the origin of the commodity as Argentina i.e. “any origin” type contracts. The position can be different where the parties have stated an intention (e.g. in correspondence) that Argentina will be the main or sole source of supply for the contractual goods or loading has already commenced and time for an alternative is realistically not available. Failing that, the position is that a Seller will be obliged to perform its delivery obligations notwithstanding that the Seller may intend (on a unilateral basis) to source produce from Argentina and is now in difficulty doing so.
Beyond that, the effect of a strike upon pre-existing contractual commitments (under FOB or CIF/CFR/C&F contracts) depends, in a large part, upon the existence and wording of provisions specifically covering such events; most commonly “force majeure” and “strike” clauses.
In the absence of any provisions in your contract covering the exact event in question, the legal doctrine of frustration may apply. However, this is a very restricted doctrine. If applicable, this would operate to discharge a contract (i.e. terminate it) when something occurs after the contract is made which makes it impossible to perform the contract or which makes the obligations to be performed under it radically different from those which were agreed at the time the contract was made.
Many of the standard form sale contracts and trade association forms, on which agricultural commodities are traded, contain express clauses that seek to regulate the rights and obligations of Buyers and Sellers where a strike situation affects performance.
The GAFTA “force majeure, strikes etc” clause
In contracts governed by the many GAFTA forms (e.g. GAFTA 38 and 39 for FOB sales and GAFTA 100 for CIF sales) the “force majeure, strikes etc.” clause (which is clause 17 in GAFTA 38 and 39 and clause 18 in GAFTA 100) provides some assistance in answering the questions about the Seller’s obligations in the face of strikes. It provides as follows (the wording in square parenthesis is the alternative or additional wording included in the GAFTA 100 form):
“Sellers shall not be responsible for delay in delivery/[shipment] of the goods or any part thereof occasioned by any Act of God, strike, lockout, riot or civil commotion, combination of workmen, breakdown of machinery, fire or any cause comprehended in the term “force majeure”. If delay in delivery/[shipment] is likely to occur for any of the above reasons, shall serve a notice on Buyers within 7 consecutive days of the occurrence, or not less that 21 consecutive days before the commencement of the contract period, whichever is later.
The notice shall state the reason(s) for the anticipated delay. If after serving such notice an extension to the delivery/[shipping] period is required, then the Sellers shall serve a further notice not later than 2 business days after the last day of the contract period of delivery/[shipment] [stating the port or ports of loading from which the goods were intended to be shipped, and shipments effected after the contract period shall be limited to the port or ports so nominated]. If delivery/[shipment] be delayed for more that 30 consecutive days, Buyers shall have the option of canceling the delayed portion of the contract, such option to be exercised by Buyers serving notice to be received by Sellers not later than the first business day after the additional 30 consecutive days.
If Buyers do not exercise this option, such delayed portion shall be automatically extended for a further period of 30 consecutive days. If delivery/[shipment] under this clause be prevented during the further 30 consecutive days extension, the contract shall be considered void. Buyers shall have no claim against Setters for delay or non-delivery/[non-shipment] under this clause, provided that Sellers shall have supplied to Buyers, if required, satisfactory evidence justifying the delay or non-fulfilment.”
Analysis of the Gafta wording
Where a Gafta “strike” clause applies and has not been amended, a Seller will not be excused from delivering merely by giving the above notices. It would appear from the relevant legal authorities which give guidance on this wording that the Seller must actually prove that it has been prevented from delivering on time by the strike. That will be a question of fact in each case depending on the particular Seller’s circumstances and the particular nature of his obligations under the contract. For this reason collection of evidence is vital. Sellers should be able to document their efforts to perform and the exact factors preventing performance in time.
It should be noted that two notices are required for a Seller to extend the delivery period following a strike. After and in spite of a “first” notice given by the Seller, the Buyer remains obliged to present a vessel for loading within the original delivery period. A failure to do so would involve a risk of being in default. This leaves the Buyer in a difficult position, for he may not know until two business days after the end of the delivery period whether the Seller will serve a “second” notice claiming an extension. If the Buyer decides not to tender a vessel for loading by the end of the original delivery period he will be in default. If he does tender a vessel, then there is a commercial exposure arising out of the possibility that the strike may continue to prevent delivery. The Buyer may, therefore, wish to claim an extension himself rather than tender a vessel but may then become liable for carrying charges in doing so.
It should also be kept firmly in mind that the period of any extension required by the Seller due to the strike will end on the day that the strike is no longer responsible for delay and it becomes possible to deliver again. Accordingly, both Buyer and Seller should be ready to give/take delivery as soon as the strike ends, or should agree expressly a period for delivery after the end of the strike. The period after the end of the strike but while logistically performance is still difficult because of knock on or residual affects is a grey area under the GAFTA clause.
The effect of the additional wording in relation to the Seller’s “second” notice highlighted in bold above is questionable. It might be argued that the wording intends to give the Seller the right to rely on the clause in circumstances where he intended to ship from a particular port that is affected by the strike even though he was not obliged by the contract to ship from that particular port. This may have the effect of reversing the normal rule which obliges a CIF Seller to perform as long he can ship from an alternative port than the one he intended to ship from. There are legal cases to support such an interpretation of the clause, though its wording is not, it is submitted, completely clear. It is possible for a contract term to modify the normal liability regime under a CIF sale. As far as we know this particular wording has not yet been judicially scrutinised. Where the Seller wishes to rely on this part of the clause he must give the requisite notice, which then binds him to ship from that port, if that becomes possible within the extended shipment period.
The FOSFA “force majeure” clauses
Under FOSFA FOB contracts (such as FOSFA 51) the position is different from the GAFTA clause. Clause 24 (force majeure) provides as follows: “Should Sellers be prevented from loading the goods on board Buyers’ ship or should Buyers be prevented from taking delivery by reason of fire, strikes, lockouts, riots, civil commotion or any cause comprehended in the term Force Majeure at ports of loading, or elsewhere preventing transport of the goods to such port/s, the contract delivery period shall be extended by 21 days beyond the termination of the Force Majeure event. Should such cause exist for a period of 60 days beyond the contract delivery period, the contract of any unfulfilled port thereof so affected should be cancelled, The party invoking this clause shall advise the other with due dispatch. The party claiming Force Majeure must provide proof to justify their claim if required.”
The wording of the Force Majeure clause in relevant CIF contracts (such as FOSFA 5, 11 and 25) is as follows:
“Should shipment of the goods or any part thereof be prevented at any time during the last 30 days of the contract shipment period by reason of Act of God, strikes, lockouts, riots, civil commotions, fires or any other cause comprehended by the term Force Majeure at port/s of loading or elsewhere preventing transport of the goods to such port/s, the time allowed for shipment shall be extended to 30 days beyond the termination of such cause, but should the contract shipment period be less than 30 days such extension shall be limited to the number of days allowed for shipment under the contract shipment period. Should such cause exist for a period of 60 days beyond the contract shipment period the contract or any unfulfilled part thereof so affected shall be cancelled. Sellers invoking this clause shall notify Buyers with due dispatch.
When goods of a specific origin are sold with the option of shipment from alternative ports and shipment from all alternative ports is not prevented Sellers may only invoke this clause with regard to the specific port/s provided that the port/s has/have been notified to Buyers as the intended port/s of loading prior to or within 7 days of the occurrence but if the occurrence commences within the last 7 days of the contract shipment period the port/s of loading to be notified not later than the first business day following the contract shipment period. Shipment after the contract shipment period shall be limited to the port/s so nominated.
Buyers have no claim against Sellers for delay in shipment of cancellation under this clause provided that Sellers shall have supplied to their Buyers, if required, satisfactory evidence justifying delay or non-fulfilment to establish any claim for extension or cancellation under this clause. In case of default after extension the default date shall be similarly deferred”.
Analysis of the FOSFA wording
Similar considerations apply to FOSFA contracts (both FOB and CIF) as they do to GAFTA contracts in relation to reliance on the strikes as a reason for non-performance. In other words, a Seller must be able to prove that he was prevented from loading the goods on board the Buyers’ ship.
However, in relation to the presentation of vessels, the position is different. The FOSFA clause provides for an automatic extension of the contract by 21 days beyond termination of the strike, provided that the strike prevents loading within the delivery period. This automatic extension means the Buyer has greater certainty as a result of the further 21 day period after the strike ends in which to present a vessel. The Buyer does not have to wait for a Seller’s notice and may not, therefore, have to make a decision about whether to claim extension himself. In order to rely on the extension, a party is required to inform the other with due despatch.
The FOSFA CIF Force Majeure clause referred to above provides for an automatic extension of up to 30 days beyond the termination of the force majeure/strike, unless the original shipment period is itself less than 30 days, in which case the extension is for the same length as the original shipment period.
The second paragraph of the clause like the one in GAFTA 100, seeks to give the Seller the right to invoke the clause where a strike/Force Majeure event prevents the Seller from loading at one or more of the possible loading ports but not all of the possible ports provided the goods to be shipped are of a specific origin and provided the Seller notifies the Buyer of the intended loading port/s within 7 days of the occurrence or not later that the first business day after the shipment period if the occurrence commences within the last 7 days of the shipment period.
The FOSFA wording is likely to be clear enough to reverse the general position under CIF contracts. Here a Seller is not obliged to ship from an alternative port or buy afloat where the loading port he intends to use is affected by the strike. It should be noted that a Seller has the right to make his declaration of an intended port after the strike/force majeure occurs so as to take advantage of the extension. He will, however, then be obliged to ship from that port if shipment becomes possible within 60 days beyond the original shipment period. A sensible Seller should, therefore, be sure he is able to ship from a nominated port before he gives notice.
GAFTA have issued several strike notices in respect of the situation in Argentina. There has also been widespread coverage in the media of the strike. It seems unlikely therefore that a Buyer could feasibly challenge the fact that a strike has occurred in Argentina. Any issues of disagreement between Buyers and Sellers trading out of Argentina are more likely to focus on whether the strike in fact prevented delivery within the contractual delivery period, including any extension.
In this regard, a sensible Seller will keep monitoring the situation and consider alternative methods/routes for ensuring that delivery can take place. A Seller that simply gives notice of a strike and then waits for it to end risks finding himself unable to rely on the relevant clause of the GAFTA or FOSFA contract. Buyers should be pro-active in contacting their Sellers if they suspect there may be a problem with performance. A Seller might reasonably seek to document his efforts to perform as evidence in support of any argument that he was prevented from performing (note that where a more expensive alternative route is available to the Seller for performing his obligations, he will be in difficulty in proving that the event in fact “prevented” his delivery).
Regular and effective communication between Sellers and Buyers is key in avoiding disputes. Sellers seeking to rely on the “strike” clause, would be well advised to keep their Buyers informed of the position, what is making delivery impossible and when it is likely that delivery will again become possible. Buyers should seek to agree with Sellers any extensions to be applied to the contract well in advance of the end of the delivery period, so they can avoid problems in the chartering and presentation of vessels.
Careful checking of the particular clauses in your contract and the notice requirements will also be important.
The factual information contained and statements made in this client alert are derived from published data and should in all cases be independently verified by the reader. The opinions expressed in this client alert are based upon assumptions about the factual situation.