Struggling to smelt, Venezuela state-run steelmaker grows sunflowers, crops

Workers at Venezuelan steelmaker Sidor are planting sunflowers and vegetables on company premises to ease a national food deficit as steel output has almost ground to a halt nine years after the company was taken over by the government.

The company says the crops are meant to boost food supply in Venezuela, which suffers from chronic Soviet-style product shortages as a result of an unraveling socialist economic system that has been exacerbated by low oil prices.

Late socialist leader Hugo Chavez nationalized Sidor in 2008. Since then, chronic labor disputes and deterioration of installations have decimated production and left a swollen payroll of employees twiddling their thumbs on the job.

Sidor workers say the agricultural venture is a reflection of company leadership being distracted by activities that are not a core part of Sidor's mission.

"The workers are just sitting here, staring at one another," said Carlos Ramirez, who has worked at Sidor for 31 years. "I've never seen anything like this. People are very worried."

Sidor has not given official production figures in a year. But workers say liquid steel output in January signals that output this year will reach just 3 percent of its installed capacity, the lowest since it opened in 1963.