Ports Of Auckland Management COVID-19 Story “embarrassing”

The Maritime Union says claims by Ports of Auckland that Government quarantine regulations are to blame for their failures are embarrassing and should be withdrawn.

A POAL spokesperson complained on Mike Hosking’s Breakfast Radio show yesterday about a “maze like process” to import crane operators.

The spokesperson said “We have to fill out heaps of forms and wait weeks, and it would be great if someone could help speed up everything.”

Maritime Union of New Zealand National Secretary Craig Harrison says the problem is POAL management.

He says the shortage of crane operators in Auckland came about because the port company has not trained enough staff over the last couple of years and has relied on workers doing excessive hours.

“If they had maintained their workforce, they wouldn’t have a problem. No other Port is in this ridiculous situation they have got Auckland into.

The Union believes there could be up to 19 current employees at the Ports of Auckland who have previously driven the container cranes at the Ports of Auckland who are currently carrying supervisory roles within the company who could be redeployed into the role.

Mr Harrison says he believes there were options to transfer workers in from other ports temporarily, and the Union had previously assisted with this process in the past.

He says past employees of the Ports of Auckland are being declined employment as stevedores even though they operated machinery still in use (Editor’s note: see below for company email to experienced job applicant.)

It was disturbing the Port Company seemed to be bringing into question the strict quarantine procedures that were keeping New Zealanders safe as COVID-19 ravaged the rest of the world, he says.

The port management is focused on an automation process that had dragged on for years and is still not working, he says.

“Port management need to be honest with New Zealand about whether they have exhausted all options available to the company within New Zealand.”

The seafarer crisis — a shipping problem being passed from port to port

Stranded seafarers are getting increasing desperate. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers' Trust.
ANOOP KUMAR VASWANI/STUFFStranded seafarers are getting increasing desperate. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers’ Trust.

A major maritime crisis is getting so bad some seafarers are injuring themselves just to get home.

The problem is turning up at our door. Some of these crews are arriving with unpaid wages. Others haven’t touched dry land since the start of the pandemic while a few are badly in need of medical assistance.

An estimated 400,000 seafarers are still on these ships despite their seafaring contracts having come to an end.

To go back to their families they need access to airports, so they can swap places with others.

The Government has passed provisions allowing things like crew changes (which are guaranteed under the Maritime Labour Convention) to happen, but that’s not the full story.

The London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is criticising New Zealand for running a seemingly generous policy for these seafarers on paper, but then allowing local port companies and district health boards (DHBs) to nullify these policies by passing their own rules.

Left unaddressed the issue could lead to a major maritime accident in our waters, drive up costs and discourage some ships from visiting.PlayUnmuteCurrent Time 0:50/Duration 1:39Loaded: 100.00% FullscreenJOSEPH JOHNSON/STUFFThe Seafarers Mission chair says crews whose contracts have been extended by months without shore leave feel “imprisoned.”

ITF navigation section co-ordinator Fabrizio Barcellona says while New Zealand’s response to this issue has been good on some fronts a “bureaucratic maze” of local rules are making the country’s efforts look uncoordinated and “opaque”.

“We have to remember that hundreds of thousands of seafarers have been trapped working aboard these vessels since March last year,” Barcellona says.

“The seafarers aboard these ships don’t have Covid, they’ve been isolated for months. But they are tired and fatigued, working six or seven days a week to bring New Zealanders the goods, fuel, food and medical supplies the public needs.

“Jacinda Ardern’s Government can honour these seafarers’ sacrifice by respecting their rights and making its rules clear and easy to understand.”

Advocates are finding it difficult to get New Zealanders to care about the fate of seafarers. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers' Trust.
NEIL PATRICK M SISONAdvocates are finding it difficult to get New Zealanders to care about the fate of seafarers. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers’ Trust.

Some seafarers have even found it difficult to get access to medical care here.

One needed his finger amputated, but was passed from port-to-port allegedly due to DHB objections to him coming on shore.

DHBs in the Wellington region argue it was the shipping company that didn’t want to wait, but people in the industry say extensive arrangements were made for the person to be treated in Wellington only for a chief medical office to reportedly say: “[the seafarer] is going to lose his finger anyway … [they] might as well lose it at the next port.”

A spokesman for Hutt Valley DHB says no medical officer at a Wellington hospital made this comment.

Shipping NZ President Thompson remembers the incident and says people in the industry had to get Maritime NZ involved just to get the person treated.

A food Transfer from ship to mainland food transfer overseas. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers' Trust.
SAMUEL ONGBIT JRA food Transfer from ship to mainland food transfer overseas. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers’ Trust.

“This is the frustration we have. Why do we need to go to those … [lengths] to get medical treatment for somebody who needs it?

“It was kind of like one DHB passing the buck to another wasn’t it? That’s what it was.”

The Ministry of Health say it is not aware of any cases where mariners haven’t been able to secure “urgent” medical assistance and believe a case-by-case approach managed by DHBs is appropriate.

Several DHBs told Stuff they haven’t declined any requests for medical help from seafarers with one saying they’re treating one case a week.

Barcellona admits Covid-19 makes things like shore leave difficult, but argues the onus is on governments and health authorities to make it work.

“It is important for the mental and physical wellbeing of all people to be able to come ashore for a walk, a meal and some time in the sunshine.

One seafarer decides to make a visual joke in frustration at the difficulty of obtaining shore leave. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers' Trust.
CARLO DEUXSON SANTIAGOOne seafarer decides to make a visual joke in frustration at the difficulty of obtaining shore leave. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers’ Trust.

“While traditional ‘shore leave’ may not be practical in the Covid era, governments must come up with solutions that allow seafarers shore leave in reasonable, managed ways.”

On paper, we have a workable system allowing shore leave and crew changes, but Thompson says ports have imposed onerous obligations on top of these.

District Health Boards also require people to return a negative test before they step off a ship, but there’s a catch here as well.

“They might have been tested in one port [in New Zealand] and all cleared, all negative, go to the next port with that form and the local DHB said ‘nah, that’s not acceptable for us,” Thompson says.

“Or you’re getting ports saying no they can’t have shore leave because we haven’t consulted with the community about crew coming ashore.”

The winning photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers' Trust.
IKE S DANGANDANANThe winning photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers’ Trust.

Global investment funds are putting pressure on governments and shipping lines to solve this problem in part to comply with their own sustainability guidelines.

On December 21 a group of major investors (led by London-based money manager Fidelity International) who collectively hold US$2 trillion(NZ$2.8t) worth of investments in the shipping sector sent an open letter to the UN secretary-general saying the whole situation posed a risk to sustainable supply chains.

“This issue is presenting significant health and safety concerns.

“The environmental consequences of a serious maritime accident involving these cargoes could be catastrophic for our oceans and security.”

An ITF survey in September found 30 per cent of seafarers weren’t getting the medical assistance they needed while 59 per cent were being forced to extend their contracts and 11 per cent weren’t getting paid.

Yet it’s not all smooth sailing even if seafarers do get access to shore leave.

The public often cares more about what’s in the containers than the people who transport them. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers' Trust.
JOSEPH FURNESSThe public often cares more about what’s in the containers than the people who transport them. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers’ Trust.

Auckland International Seafarers Centre port welfare co-ordinator Aaron Ironside says crew who get shore leave sometimes face a hostile reaction from the public.

Like one group who recently visited Tauranga.

“They were accosted in the supermarket by the public. Of course, the public knew what a crew looked like, they’d been seeing them for years,” Ironside says.

“Suddenly 10 Filipino guys [were] all standing together in the supermarket … [and members of the public] gave them a hard time, told them that they must have escaped the ship. That they shouldn’t be here.”

People like him are trying to get a handle on how these seafarers are coping, but Covid-19 restrictions are adding an extra layer of complexity.

Ports have their own rules for crew changes on top of Ministry of Health rules. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers' Trust.
CEO ANGELO D FAJARDOPorts have their own rules for crew changes on top of Ministry of Health rules. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers’ Trust.

Ironside says his first physical contact with seafarers comes when he boards the gangway in full personal protection equipment (PPE).

“We visit at the top of the gangway. The open air. We don’t go inside the ship,” Ironside says.

“It’s a challenge … you’re wearing a mask, they’re wearing a mask. They’re from another country. Sometimes it’s not always easy to hear and understand each other, but we do our best.”

The day before Ironside spoke to Stuff he was working on behalf of seafarers who had spent more than 11 months at sea. Half of the crew on-board didn’t want to stay there any longer.

Seafarers cooling off at sea. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers' Trust.
RONALD ALAN MADRIDSeafarers cooling off at sea. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers’ Trust.

“Some of the Fijian crew were not willing to sign another extension because they wanted to get back home. Their families had been affected by a cyclone. And we were helping encourage and motivate that change to happen.”

However, direct complaints from seafarers are rare because in countries like the Philippines twice as many people are trained to go to sea than there are jobs.

“A sailor is going to be very reluctant to tell you how tough it is because he does not want the company perceiving him to be any kind of problem,” Ironside says.

Inside the ‘bureaucratic maze’

Thompson says some port regulations effectively make crew changes impossible despite the existence of a special crew change visa.

Ports like Auckland and Tauranga require people who fly into the country for a crew change to spend 14 days in isolation before they board a ship, but the special visas they’re issued only last for two or three days.

If seafarers tried to comply with this rule, their visas would expire before they could board the ship.

“So basically we’re telling the industry you cannot do crew changes in Auckland or Tauranga,” Thompson says.

One seafarer seeking medical treatment was allegedly passed from DHB to DHB. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers' Trust.
VINCENT DWIGHT D RAFILOne seafarer seeking medical treatment was allegedly passed from DHB to DHB. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers’ Trust.

A spokesman for Maritime NZ says 1200 crew changes have ta place over the past five months.

“The Government has set out the steps to follow and requirements that need to be met for shore leave and crew changes to take place safely.

“As separate commercial entities, ports are legally entitled to determine who can transit through their property.”

Barcellona says he’s disappointed the Government has allowed local port authorities to add extra barriers to seafarers to crew changes and shore leave.

“There is little benefit to be had from the prevalence of unpredictable, port-by-port, ad-hoc rules. An effective crew change system requires transparency and consistency.”

A ‘privilege’

You get the sense of how important shore leave is to seafarers when you talk to people like Jason Arances, who spoke via email while his ship was at the Ports of Auckland.

“I’m a Filipino sir, and it so happen I live in the stunning country like yours, Philippines.”

A lot of seafarers are getting increasingly desperate to head home. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers' Trust.
TIM ISADAA lot of seafarers are getting increasingly desperate to head home. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers’ Trust.

On his current ship he generally spends midnight onwards on ‘bridge watch’. His big social time will come after dinner when members of his crew swap stories, engage in a bit of karaoke, or play Call of Duty on their laptops.

“In port [to] have this privilege shore leave just to have this feeling in yourself being human that you’re back in society after spending long at sea … sip some local/foreign beer in the [Seafarers’ mission] house while playing billiards, ping pong, darts.”

Country manager for Swire Shipping, Brodie Stevens, says the welfare of seafarers is important to shipowners and there is a need for someone to take the lead in creating a clear set of rules and procedures for crew changes and shore leave across the country.

The inside of a cargo ship can often resemble a large industrial site. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers' Trust..
JOHN RUFO M. BONTILAOThe inside of a cargo ship can often resemble a large industrial site. Photo from the ‘Still at Sea’ photo competition run by the Seafarers’ Trust..

“I think this is the challenge that the industry has now is to try and get some clear demarcation of who is responsible for what and what is the correct procedure.”

“It would be hard to expect someone to stay on the ship till the end of Covid. That’s just nigh on impossible.”

Cutting costs

Mission to Seafarers Oceania regional director Lance Lukin argues the financial viability of shipping is another problem.

Sailors have been turning up on our shores with unpaid wages. A sign some firms are so cash-strapped they can’t pay their workers.

These same firms are debating whether they should focus on more profitable routes through Asia and Australia during the pandemic, leaving our country with even less shipping capacity.

Lukin argues things like the ease of crew changes will factor into these debates.

“Shipping companies are making the financial decision do we travel all the way to New Zealand or do we do a lot of shorter hauls in bigger markets?”

Container ships wait to dock at the Ports of Auckland.
ABIGAIL DOUGHERTY/STUFFContainer ships wait to dock at the Ports of Auckland.

The stress and strain is already leading to some mysterious injuries.

Ironside says one such case popped up recently on a ship sailing out of Sydney with an Indian national who found out his father was unwell back home.

“We don’t know exactly what happened, but suffice to say, within the next day he had a severe injury to his hand and had to be returned back to Sydney where he was flown home.

“And really I don’t know what happened to that man, but your two alternatives are he either harmed himself. Or, he was so distraught by being away from home that he had an industrial accident because his mind wasn’t on the job.

“Either way it’s terrible.”

Southern manufacturing companies facing uncertainty

Ceri Macleod, general manager of Sorec, a professional body representing the manufacturing engineering sector in the southern region.
SUPPLIEDCeri Macleod, general manager of Sorec, a professional body representing the manufacturing engineering sector in the southern region.

Southland manufacturers are among many nationwide struggling to get supplies into the country in a timely fashion so production can continue and orders met.

Otago-Southland Employers’ Association chief executive Virginia Nicholls said the hold-up of shipping containers at Auckland Port was a significant issue for many manufacturers.

Manufacturers who imported stock and ingredients from overseas needed it arriving on time so work could continue.

“Now they have to hold a bit more because they don’t know when the container is coming, so there’s a lot of uncertainty out there,” Nicholls said.

There were “not too many” manufacturers who weren’t affected.

Among those facing challenges were engineering companies and food companies.

Ceri Macleod, general manager of Sorec, a professional body representing the manufacturing engineering sector across the southern region, said a number of its members had reported delays in receiving goods from overseas.

“This puts additional pressure on the manufacturing engineering sector, particularly in the southern region,” she said.

“Delays can have a significant impact on production and ability to fulfil orders on time.”

Some of the issues could be addressed by pulling together as a network, but it placed extra pressure on its members and their businesses.

Gareth Lyness, sales and supply chain manager of Blue River Dairy, an Invercargill business that exports infant formula from sheep, goat and cow milk, said the company sourced most of its ingredients and packaging from New Zealand.

But some came from overseas and “what used to take four weeks takes eight weeks … or it could take 12.”

Despite not having to stop production at any stage, a number of shipping containers with plastic tops for infant formula cans were delayed at the port. But Blue River had other products it was able to manufacture to cover the delay, he said.

Gareth Lyness of Blue River Dairy [file photo].
JOHN HAWKINS/STUFFGareth Lyness of Blue River Dairy [file photo].

The company had bought in more “safety stock” so it was sitting there in case ingredients didn’t arrive.

“There’s a cost to that but the effect of not doing it and not producing is much greater.”

The company’s logistics team had been able to manage the situation by dealing with suppliers and using multiple ports and shipping lines, he said.

Fonterra global supply chain director Gordon Carlyle said it was experiencing some challenges getting a very small amount packaging and ingredients into the country.

“However, our ability to adapt our operations and product mix means our manufacturing operations are not impacted. At this stage there are no supply issues at our Edendale site.”

Lance Coupland, managing director of Coupland’s Bakeries said it had machinery coming from America that would be two months late and its suppliers of coconut and condensed milk had experienced constraints in getting it into the country, but the company hadn’t been too badly affected.

Retailers were also struggling to get enough product into the country to sell, with the issue highlighted before the Christmas buying rush.

“It’s been a significant issue, no doubt,” Nicholls said.

“And it’s going to take a long time to solve all of this, it won’t be solved in the next few months.”

US port shutdowns could affect NZ exports: freight group

Major import gateway Ports of Auckland is in the process of replacing its manned straddle cranes with automated ones. The project was unable to be finished because of lockdown, but the port hopes to complete it in a few months.
CHRIS MCKEEN/STUFFMajor import gateway Ports of Auckland is in the process of replacing its manned straddle cranes with automated ones. The project was unable to be finished because of lockdown, but the port hopes to complete it in a few months.

Potential port shutdowns in California could hamper New Zealand export shipments to the US, adding New Zealand’s freight congestion woes.

More than 700 dock workers have contracted Covid-19 at four major ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, creating a labour shortage.

The Los Angeles Times reported that a bottleneck of vessels was developing at LA’s twin ports and an urgent campaign had started to get workers vaccinated.

However, a shutdown was possible for a period of time and it could have significant issues for New Zealand exports as well as imports from the US, Customs Brokers and Freight Forwarders Federation president Chris Edwards said.

Edwards said there were normally several monthly port calls to New Zealand from the US; in January there had been one because of congestion at Auckland.

That lack of connection and the California backlogs would ultimately ‘’affect the export market going back up to the States, with apples and produce and those sorts of things.”

Port congestion is a worldwide phenomenon because of supply chain disruptions due to Covid and a global surge in demand for consumer goods.

Ports of Auckland’s own logistics issues have compounded the problem, leaving ships in the harbour for up to two weeks at one point before they could berth.

On Friday Maersk announced its weekly OC1 service between New Zealand and the east coast of the US would temporarily bypass Auckland until April, but it would continue to visit Tauranga.

While the freight issues have left many importers, retailers and manufacturers waiting for orders, Edwards said there was a ray of light if Ports of Auckland could recruit and bring in experienced foreign crane drivers.

The port was left short of crane and straddle drivers when workers returned home during lockdown, and Edwards said he understood the port was making good progress on that front.

If it was successful, the port’s backlog could be cleared in a matter of weeks, he said.

Shipping vessels skip Auckland as cargo congestion continues

Congestion at Ports of Auckland has driven freight costs to historically high levels and created shortages of some goods.
CHRIS MCKEEN/STUFFCongestion at Ports of Auckland has driven freight costs to historically high levels and created shortages of some goods.

A shipping line is diverting one of its regular services away from Auckland because of its massive port cargo snarl-up.

The congestion is causing gaps to appear on shelves, as retailers wait for stock to be unloaded at Ports of Auckland, the country’s main gateway for sea freight.

In response, shipping lines are getting creative. Major shipping line Maersk has just announced that one of its regular services to Auckland, the OC1, will skip Auckland for the next 11 weeks.PlayUnmuteCurrent Time 0:02/Duration 1:05Loaded: 60.78% FullscreenCHRIS MCKEEN/STUFF’Lumpy’ supply chain – Ports of Auckland faces troubling times

OC1, which links New Zealand with the US east coast, was being diverted because of ‘’continued port congestion and delayed vessel berthing in New Zealand’’.

Simon Beale, of the Council of Cargo Owners, said Maersk’s decision would keep it on schedule, and ‘’also it might give Auckland a chance to get back on target as well’’.

The shipping line said it would continue to serve Auckland in taking export cargo by rail to Tauranga.

New Zealand’s cargo problems are related to a global surge in demand for goods and factory supply issues due to Covid.

As a result, shipping lines have been changing tack to meet demand and shipping containers are locationally out of balance around the globe.

Ports of Auckland has had its own Covid problems, with some skilled staff returning overseas over lockdown and an unfinished automation project.

Lengthy delays for Auckland-bound cargo have seen a number of ship divert to other ports. This week the Tianjin Bridge berthed at Northport, offloading over 900 containers, following a much larger visit in December by the Constantinos P.

The Constantinos P put Northport to the test, with around 1000 containers loaded on trucks and taken to Auckland, an operation which took more than a week
NORTHPORT/SUPPLIEDThe Constantinos P put Northport to the test, with around 1000 containers loaded on trucks and taken to Auckland, an operation which took more than a week

Diversions to Tauranga risk also creating congestion there. The port had record container numbers in October and December and is using around 40 Auckland-bound trains a week.

But a port spokesman said it would happily take more train services to speed up movement across its own wharves.

Beale said the Tianjin Bridge’s visit would provide relief for many importers. ’’It probably saves a 12-day delay in Auckland, maybe.’’

However, the congestion issue was ongoing. ’’Things aren’t getting worse,’’ he said, but they were not expected to improve until the second quarter.

The big challenge now was to ensure there were enough shipping containers in the right place in time for the export season, he said.

Meat and dairy exports were already into their high season and the fruit season would begin next month.

Freight companies were already giving established customers priority with containers, and two shipping line with their own cranes were sending ships expressly to pick up containers.

Pamela Bonney, of transport firm LW Bonney and Sons, said everyone was trying to find new ways to operate but there were ‘’very few levers to pull’’.

‘’It’s putting a significant amount of costs and stress across all of industry, whether it’s the shipping companies, the ports, whether it’s the transport companies, freight forwarders – it’s costing everybody more to do the same job.’’

Northland rail line back in action after upgrades completed

The running of a test train last week means the rail line between Whangārei and Swanson in West Auckland is back in action after an upgrade funded by the Provincial Growth Fund.A freight train crosses the new Bridge 100, on Helleyer road, 15km from Helensville.  The new bridges have a concrete ballast tray deck which requires less maintenance than the old bridges, and can carry up to 25-tonne axle loads.

A freight train crosses the new Bridge 100, on Helleyer road, 15km from Helensville. The new bridges have a concrete ballast tray deck which requires less maintenance than the old bridges, and can carry up to 25-tonne axle loads. Photo: Supplied / KiwiRail

KiwiRail said that in seven months, five bridges were replaced and the tracks in 13 tunnels lowered to allow the passage of hi-cube shipping containers that are standard in international shipping.

KiwiRail Group chief executive Greg Miller said that at its peak the project had more than 600 people working on it.

“In addition to the new bridges and improved tunnels, the team laid 30,000 new sleepers and nearly 63,000m3 of ballast to provide a more secure base for the track.”

More than 400,000 hours went into the construction work, but it was not over yet.

“While we are delighted that this section of the line is up and running, there’s some more intricate work to the tunnel linings required. Additionally, to allow greater train speed and axle weight, over time we will be replacing another 10km of rail and laying more than 100,000 sleepers,” Miller said.Tunnel 2, about 15km north of Helensville on the North Auckland Line, has the least clearance of any of the 100 tunnels on the KiwiRail network. Here, workers are re-profiling the lining to enable hi-cube containers on wagons to pass through.

Tunnel 2, about 15km north of Helensville on the North Auckland Line, has the least clearance of any of the 100 tunnels on the KiwiRail network. Here, workers are re-profiling the lining to enable hi-cube containers on wagons to pass through. Photo: Supplied / KiwiRail

For now, re-opening the line was a “big achievement”, he said.

It would support importers, improve sustainability, and help with KiwiRail’s efforts to address the freight backlog, Miller added.

“Fewer trucks on roads also means less congestion, lower road maintenance costs, and greater road safety. It also means fewer emissions. Every tonne of freight carried by rail produces 70 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the equivalent freight carried by road.”

Miller said the re-opening of the line was a good opportunity to remind people to take care around the railway line and to always look for trains before crossing the tracks.

KiwiRail does not yet have a spur directly to Northport but the PGF funding has allowed it to begin buying land along the route.

In the meantime, freight is trucked from the port to the rail line in Whangārei, then carried by rail, south to Auckland and other destinations.