New Zealanders are continuing to wait long periods for imported goods but delays at Auckland’s port are reducing, as the country’s biggest import port struggles to clear a massive backlog of freight.
Ships have been sitting in the harbour for over two weeks to unload their cargo, as Ports of Auckland grapples with a shortage of skilled operators and a global surge in demand for freight.
In late November, some shipping lines were waiting up to 17 days, but the port says the waiting time is now down to an average of eight days.
However, the delays are not helping retailers like Tony Gallagher, owner of Auckland flat pack furniture store Sofas and More, who was running out of stock.
‘’If I consolidated it all up, I could get it into six pallets and I can hold more than 70,’’ he said.
He said one shipment he was waiting on would arrive in the harbour next week but would not be unloaded for another 10 days.
Most customers were understanding, but it was embarrassing to tell people they might have to wait two to three months, Gallagher said.
‘’In the weekend customers are coming in, they are looking at the showroom and going we’ll have that, and I’m going, I’m sorry I can take your pre-order and you can get it in the New Year and they go, oh no, we need it now and walk it out.’’
The Ministry of Transport has committed to help Ports of Auckland recruit overseas workers, which needs over 50 staff to work as crane operators, straddle operators, lashers and other stevedoring roles.
‘’As many other employers have found, recruitment is proving difficult. The labour market is strong, there is not a large surplus of suitable people looking for work,’’ port spokesman Matt Ball said.
The port had found a crane operator and several skilled straddle drivers within the country.
‘’We hope to have another crane crew in place before Christmas and a second by February next year, but recruitment – and training – will be ongoing for some time.
Chris Edwards, president of the Customs Brokers and Freight Forwarders Federation, said the crux of the problem was the staff shortage, not the port’s current automation project.
Lack of staff meant only a few of the port’s cranes could run around the clock and he urged the Government to give the recruitment process priority.
“This is an urgent matter and, given the significant cost to the economy, it’s our view that the New Zealand Government should be assisting in this recruitment, much like the Australian Government is currently trying to do in its primary sector.”
As well as delays, importers were also grappling with much higher freight costs.
Edwards said costs were three to six times higher than a few months ago, and overlaid with surcharges for freight going through Auckland.
”A container from Shanghai to Auckland in January, a 20-foot container, would have cost US$500. That price now is around US$3000. And it’s going to be the same for exporters.”
To find ways around the backlog, ships have been diverted to other ports. Cargo has been diverted to Tauranga, Napier, Timaru and Lyttelton, much of it going back to Auckland by road or rail.
One shipping line announced this week it would divert a vessel to Whangarei, but Edwards said the cost and difficulty of getting 2500 containers back to Auckland in time for Christmas would be high.
Delays in shipping goods from Asia are expected to continue well into next year, complicated by a looming global shortage of shipping containers and severe congestion in Asian trans-shipping ports.
Demand for space has risen so much that some ships are bypassing New Zealand altogether, a practice known as ”blank sailings,” as they try to make up time.
Mondiale Freight Services has advised its importer customers to book space on ships up to three weeks before sailing, and plan for a six to eight week contingency delay in their supply chain.
Exporters are also struggling. Air freight capacity has nearly halved due to the drop in passenger flights and rates have risen by 35 per cent, forcing them to compete for sea freight.
Simon Beale, chairman of the Council of Cargo Owners, which represents major importers and exporters like Fonterra, said the bigger players who had locked-in contracts were managing, but those buying on the spot market were paying big money.
He said most ships were still visiting New Zealand. ‘’There are a couple of ones that have a couple of blank sailings just to help relieve the situation in Auckland. But things are moving.”
Cargo that missed New Zealand would go to Australia and then make its way back. ”Missing out on a week is better than missing out on six weeks.”
However, as the fruit and meat export season looms early next year, exporters were nervous about a potential mismatch and shortage of cargo containers around the world, Beale said.
”Getting boxes in the right place is the key thing between now and that period of time.”
Kiwirail has also been working to help alleviate the congestion in Auckland, putting on extra trains have between Tauranga and Auckland to help clear Tauranga’s wharves, increasing capacity on its South Island train and adding a train from Auckland to Christchurch each weekend.
Meanwhile, a Government scheme to subsidise carriers of high priority air freight has been extended until March.
Air New Zealand has been allocated an average of 55 flights per week under the scheme, providing it with a government contribution of between $100 million and $145m towards cargo revenue over the next four months.
Cargo flights are now providing about half Air New Zealand’s monthly revenue.