Importers demand answers over delays at ports

Ports of Auckland is unsure if a backlog of imports can be cleared before Christmas, as some retailers fear their shelves will be half empty during the festive season.

Auckland, New Zealand - May 25, 2017:  Aerial view of the port of Auckland New Zealand.

Photo: 123RF

Last week, Mainfreight managing director Don Braid told Checkpoint Ports of Auckland was struggling to get slots available on its wharf for arriving vessels.

Some blame the shipping snarl up on an automation project, which the port said was supposed to improve its operations.

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said stock shortages were a very serious concern for retailers in the lead up to Christmas.

“Obviously a retailer needs to have stock in store or in the warehouse … so if those products aren’t available, then that means less revenue coming through the door for those retailers and what would normally be the busiest and most profitable time of the year may well be one that turns up short and does’t necessarily deliver good results for the retailer.”

And retailers may not be the only ones missing out.

“What we might see is lessening of discounts that we might otherwise see during Black Friday and in the run up to Boxing Day … if there’s not as much stock available and there’s ongoing consumer demand for products, it might mean that discounting is not possible,” Harford said.

Ports of Auckland general manager of communications Matt Ball said the port was communicating regularly with their customers but admitted “it will be tough” for the port to catch up on the backlog of imports before Christmas. 

“I honestly don’t know, it really depends on who we can get through the door, who we can interview, and how quickly we can get people on board and train them.” 

The mayor was also being kept in the loop on the situation.

Auckland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Barnett said he had heard from a number of businesses worried about their future if shipping delays continued.

Barnett said one North Shore business wrote to him recently, saying if things did not improve soon, they would be forced to shut.

Labour pressure behind the delays – Ports of Auckland

The port’s website hails automated straddle carriers as a way of boosting capacity and making its operations more sustainable, but some believe manual operations would be better clear the backlog.

Customs Brokers and Freight Forwarders Federation (CBFFF) president Chris Edwards believed automation was to blame for the logjam.

“Originally there would’ve been say 50 odd cranes around the port, unloading ships, taking the containers off, loading the export containers on… we understand there are currently 10 and the automated system is not working.”

Edwards believed the port was almost at a crisis point, and said they should revert back to a manual system to clear the backlog.

“It’s getting pretty serious, when you’ve got vessels not even coming to this country anymore, leaving their containers in Australia and waiting for the situation to alleviate. 

“Where export season is not far away, right now the exporters I don’t think are aware of the issues but they soon will be if these vessel are affected by congestion, and the Port of Auckland is the first port in the chain of port calls where vessels come, it’s function or otherwise has a massive effect on the rest of the country.”

While Ball admitted things were difficult now, he told Checkpoint it was not true to say the automation system was not working or to blame for the problems.

“[Chris Edwards is] putting the blame on automation, which is not correct, and he’s saying I think we had 10 crane drivers as opposed to we used to have 50 and we switched on automation – those numbers are completely wrong.”

Ball said the port tried to have the project in operation before July, but the March lockdown pushed back their plans.

“Now we’ve gone half automated but we’ve hit the busy part of the year, we’ve had to work harder, we’re operating two terminals, we don’t have full automation which would’ve actually relieved some of that labour pressure.”

He accepted one of their shortcomings was in underestimating the impact Covid-19 would have on business and labour supply.

“The early import peak also caught us out, there’s been significant changes in the import patterns as well and that did catch us out.”

He said they had been short of about 30 staff in the past few years, but with Covid-19 making the situation worse, they were now in need of another 50 staff.

“We are now in a position where we don’t have enough staff – not like Chris says – but we don’t have enough.

“It’s not good, we’re trying to fix it,” he said of the delays. “We’re trying to hire people as fast as we can, admittedly it’s still difficult… we’ve got seven people starting work on Monday but that’s out of 30 people we interviewed.”

The port is now working with the Ministry of Transport and immigration officials to sort visa changes for new employees who have the required skills and are in New Zealand.

“It’s a small number of people but it will help,” Ball said.

For now, huge discrepancies remain between ships arriving in Auckland and when vessels are actually expected to berth.

Edwards said: “Some of those dates are 12-14 days after the arrival of the ship … an importer could be waiting four or six weeks before the vessel even arrives here, let alone a further two weeks to then get their hands on the product”.

It was true some were being diverted to the Port of Tauranga “but Tauranga, because of the volume that’s going through that port, is taking on average eight to 12 days for the rail system to clear import containers to bring it up to Auckland, so it’s not really a good solution”, he said.

Edwards is due to sit down with Ports of Auckland tomorrow to chart the way ahead.

Ball said containers ships could be waiting between 10-12 days to get into port, but other vessels like bulk carriers, were getting through okay. The movement of containers off the port was also going smoothly, he said.

“We really are trying to put things right, I mean it will only come right when we get the right number of people, when we get automation finished, and get things working properly, yes it will take a number of weeks … but we are working as hard as we can to get it done.”

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