empty shelves

The spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant has caused major disruptions in Australia’s container logistics chain, with staff having to isolate as case numbers rise.

Container Transport Alliance Australia (CTAA) Director, Neil Chambers, said that every part of the chain has been affected.

“Container transport operators across Australia have reported to CTAA that they are experiencing between a five per cent to 20 per cent reduction in available staff, including heavy vehicle drivers, warehouse staff, forklift drivers, container unpack crews and administration, due to COVID infections and isolation requirements,” Mr Chambers said.

“In some extreme cases, this rises to close to 50 per cent of available labour.

Staff shortages at customers’ premises, international container stevedore terminals and empty container parks have also delayed the movement of containers.

“As a result, transport operators are reporting operational capacity constraints, with transport yards operating between 70 per cent to over 130 per cent capacity,” Mr Chambers said.

“This is particularly acute due to the delays in customer deliveries, and the constant need to stage empty import containers through transport yards, while trying to secure de-hire slots at clogged empty container parks or container terminals that have reached capacity to receive returns.” 

Mr Chambers said that with the rise of infections, current supply chain delays are expected to continue well into 2022.

Major Australian supply chain operator, DP World Australia, has reported that approximately 10 per cent of its workforce have been impacted, either through contracting COVID-19 themselves or from isolating due to a positive case in their household.

Delays also extend to vessel berthing at ports, and have been most impactful in Sydney and Melbourne, which have experienced delays of between two and nine days. 

Meanwhile, a heatwave in Western Australia has brought terminal productivity issues to Fremantle.

“The flow-on impact of these delays is terminal congestion and significant competition among transport operators to secure vehicle booking slots before import containers incur storage fees, or to gain export slots to meet vessel cut-offs,” Mr Chambers said.

“There’s no relief on the time constraints … transport operators still only get three days to retrieve import containers from the terminals, and export receival periods can fluctuate wildly if vessels come forward in their port rotation to avoid congestion elsewhere, or are alternatively delayed from port arrival or berthing.

To keep up with demand, transport operators have increased weekend work. This comes with the challenges of adhering to fatigue management rostering obligations and managing overtime and staging costs.

Mr Chambers said that transport operators were also facing pressure coming off of the holiday season.

“Transport operators are trying to work with the container terminals to avoid import container storage charges. But, this is proving to be extremely difficult, supercharged over the Christmas and New Year period with shorter working weeks, staff availability and operating hours,” Mr Chambers said.

“Import container detention fee pressure has risen too, with few shipping lines providing any relief to importers and forwarders from hefty charges for late empty return, despite congestion at their contracted container terminals or empty container park providers being a major contributor to the supply chain delays.

“In summary, persistent import and export demand, coupled with the significant operational head-winds being faced, have many in the landside container logistics sector commenting that it is the hardest conditions they have ever encountered.” 

The CTAA has welcomed the announcement that Rapid Antigen Testing (RAT) tests can replace PCR testing, as well as the decision to remove the rolling PCR testing for freight workers crossing state borders.

Mr Chambers said that the availability of RAT kits is crucial for critical supply chain workers, and that the CTAA will continue to work with Federal and state governments on COVID protocols.

Isolation and testing regulations have since been changed to allow supply chain workers to get back to work sooner.

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