By María Ramírez
PUERTO ORDAZ (Reuters) - 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.
At the behest of their bosses, workers have planted sunflowers, sorghum and vegetables on about 100 acres at the mill. The sunflowers have grown tall after about four months, but sorghum and vegetables have not grown as expected, which workers suspect is a result of the soil not being apt for such crops.
"The only harvest we have here is 100 workers looking for jobs at the Sidor gate in front of sunflowers grown by an industry that is supposed to produce steel," said Sidor employee Leonel Grisett.
Sidor's President Justo Noguera did not respond to requests for comment.
President Nicolas Maduro says his government is a victim of an "economic war" led by his adversaries. Critics counter that Venezuela suffers from unsustainable policies that have left public and private companies unable to function.
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 company has also built an equine-assisted therapy center, in which special-needs kids interact with horses.
"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.
(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Diego Ore and Bernadette Baum)