Empty container depots adding to industry’s costs?

FTW published an article recently in regard to ‘empty container depots’ and their apparent negative impact on cost and response to industry needs. It was duly noted that while so much focus was accorded to Port delays, little is said about the additional costs caused by empty container depots. Many of these in fact hold, clean and distribute empty containers on behalf of shipping lines some of whom are not equipped to service the industry due to ill-equipped facilities.

Shipping lines complain about the turnaround of their vessels at the port, but take little interest in ensuring a quick turnaround of vehicles at their appointed container depots. The report continues: “Transporters are delayed for hours at major depots while waiting for containers to be turned in, cleaned and then released for export cargo. Most of these depots do not work 24 hours in line with the port and transporters, which further limits the ability of transporters and industry to perform”. I think this deserves some further thought and consideration, and for this I’ll provide a customs-slanted view.

Firstly, in other parts of the world, the same mentality prevails whenever a port or customs system is replaced or upgraded – an avalanche of vitriolic sentiment, followed by line operators threatening to institute port delay surcharges and the like. To place matters into true perspective – yes, the port and customs services are there for the benefit and support of the supply chain, and should run and be maintained to offer efficient operation even in the event of catastrophe or a burgeoning logistics market demanding increased capacity and responsiveness. 9/11 provided a catalyst for Customs Inc. to initiate an unheard of demand on trade to increase its internal security mechanisms and even provide information in advance of the lading of a vessel at a foreign port. The US lines were the first to climb on the band wagon in support of heightened security and quickly acted to ensure that their regional offices were able to assist foreign shippers in supplying the required ‘advanced information’ at a nominal charge – varying between $25 and $60 per bill of lading. Sure, this was the cost necessary to ensure lines met their new stringent reporting requirements to the US Homeland Security to obviate possible penalties of $5,000 and up. Nonetheless, the same lines, when asked to provide the local authorities the same courtesy, recoil and look for all sorts of excuses to avoid the subject. Sure, it is understood that only the US has the right to make such demands, not any anyone else. I have followed most other advance cargo reporting requirements with similar amusement.

You see, lines were prepared to make suitable arrangements for US-bound containers such as pre-booking empty containers. Now when the requirement is extended to other parts of the world there is an immediate issue. Simply, and as the article correctly deduces, supply chain security implies that everyone changes – even the empty container depots.

As the local port authorities and your customs service are spending millions in upgrades to meet the demands of the future, so too is the same required of trade. Unlike commercial entities, your customs service remains one of the few who in the world that has not instituted a customs service fee. Certain traders and intermediaries in the industry might complain that recent developments at SARS have seen their costs increase due to new transactional requirements, for example the electronic supporting document issue. This I will discuss on its own in a separate post. The bottom line is that the FTW article is an important cue for those container depots concerned to get their act together. The heat will undoubtedly be turned up on them once SARS introduces its new export clearance and cargo reporting requirements. South Africa needs smaller to medium enterprises offering dedicated services. Perhaps it’s time for the lines (those who operate such facilities) to consider outsourcing these activities to more dedicated enterprises. Read the FTW article here!

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