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(Clockwise, from right) Philippine Ports Authority general manager Atty Jay Daniel Santiago, Customs commissioner Rey Leonardo Guerrero and Department of Transportation OIC-undersecretary for Maritime Fernando Juan Perez meet on Nov 14 to coordinate government response to the problem of empty container returns.

The Department of Transportation (DOTr), Philippine Ports Authority (PPA), and Bureau of Customs (BOC) will unveil within the month measures to address the persistent problem of empty container returns, DOTr OIC-Undersecretary for Maritime Fernando Juan Perez told PortCalls.

Perez’s announcement comes after statements issued separately by the Confederation of Truckers Association of the Philippines (CTAP), Alliance of Concerned Truck Owners and Organizations (ACTOO), and Chamber of Customs Brokers, Inc. (CCBI) that amount to the same thing: they will not join any trucking holiday this month planned by other truckers and customs brokers’ groups, noting it is not the appropriate measure to address difficulties in returning empties.

Perez, who met with Customs commissioner Rey Leonardo Guerrero and PPA general manager Atty. Jay Daniel Santiago on November 14, said government is already doing something about the issue although he begged off from disclosing details. He said DOTr wants to consult various stakeholder organizations, including port operators, first before making an announcement.

CTAP, ACTOO and CCBI statements followed a threat by trucking organizations Aduana Business Club, Inc. (ABCI), Haulers and Truckers Association in the Watersouth, Inc. (HATAW), and Inland Haulers and Truckers Association (INHTA), and Professional Customs Brokers Association of the Philippines (PCBAPI) of a “Customs Brokers, Port Truckers Day of Rest” from Nov 19 to 24.

The trucking holiday, they said, is meant to force the Philippine government to address issues with empty container returns as well as intervene in the implementation of the 15-year-old age limit for trucks-for-hire.

Truck age limit

On the latter issue, DOTr issued a statement that it is unfazed over the planned trucking holiday seeking to protest the phase-out of trucks based on year model. The truckers are specifically against Department Order (DO) No. 2017-09, which reinforced the earlier DO 2002-030 on the mandatory 15-year age limit for buses- and trucks-for hire covered by a certificate of public convenience.

Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board chairman Martin Delgra III noted that there already is an agreement with truckers—including those with units older than 15 years—that they may continue to use their current franchises during the transition period.

“These units, regardless of year model, will be allowed to operate during the transition period should they pass the roadworthiness test of the Motor Vehicle Inspection System being procured by the Land Transportation Office,” Delgra said.

The DOTr and its attached agencies said they will continue to push for the modernization of public vehicles for the safety, security and comfort of the Filipinos.

Use CMTA powers

In his letter dated Nov 13, CCBI president Atty Ferdinand Nague suggested to BOC chief Guerrero that he use his powers under the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act (CMTA), specifically Sections 201 (Powers and Functions of the Commissioner) and 202 (Functions of the Bureau), for a “swift intervention” to the problem of empty container returns.

The chamber proposed that BOC call a meeting among CCBI, foreign shipping lines (represented by the Association of International Shipping Lines or AISL), Manila terminal operators, truckers, and the Container Depot Alliance of the Philippines (CDAP) to “formulate actions to immediately solve this matter as we firmly believe these stakeholders themselves have the solutions to this problem.”

CCBI said foreign shipping lines may want to consider sending sweeper vessels to Manila ports to evacuate empty containers, and designate “their own container depots outside Metro Manila.”

The chamber also proposed that the customs commissioner create an ad hoc committee to regulate or monitor the movement of empty containers.

CCBI noted that despite previous efforts—meetings and discussions between government authorities and private stakeholders—to resolve the problem, “the same proved futile and was not addressed and that since this matter on the return of empty containers tremendously affects and delays the release of containerized loaded goods, especially from the Manila ports, the same is still within the jurisdiction and responsibility of the Bureau of Customs to resolve as it involves imported goods.”

CCBI pointed out that despite all necessary approvals from the BOC, the release of container goods from the Manila International Container Terminal and the Manila South Harbor now takes two to three days.

In addition, the return of empties takes more than four to five days, causing additional costs due to detention, storage, demurrage and trucking charges that will be shouldered by importers and customs brokers but ultimately the consuming public, the chamber said.

For its part, CTAP in its Nov 13 statement signed by president Mario Yap and chairman Ruperto Bayocot, said it recognizes the “magnitude of damage and harm” the twin problems of empty container returns and the 15-year-old age limit policy of the government on trucks-for-hire cause but noted “port stakeholders cannot afford another port congestion that in the past punctured our national economy.”

In 2014, a truck ban handed down by the Manila City government led to massive port congestion that caused countless delivery delays and additional costs for the logistics industry.

CTAP noted its officers are already actively undertaking “proper representations with various national government agencies for an immediate action on the said problems and issues.”

All noise

Meanwhile, ACTOO in a Nov 13 statement signed by its president/chairman Ricky Papa said the group will also not participate in a trucking holiday, pointing out that those planning such action had made similar threats seven times in the past and “all we got was noise.”

Papa questioned the “legitimacy”, “credibility” and “composition” of groups threatening a holiday even as he called on “other sectors in the piers, to finally unmask groups” with a “dubious agenda”.

He added, “We will be making our regular deliveries, as we do every day of the year. No amount of noise, cultural exhibition or grandstanding will deter us from doing so.”

The return of empty containers has been a longstanding issue that has especially escalated this year due to a confluence of events: bad weather that has delayed some vessels and which has led to berthing issues; high yard utilization at the container terminals due to the peak season; limited capacity of outside depots; and the trade imbalance (three laden containers coming in against one laden container for export leading to more empty containers in the country at any given time)–all of which have caused a knock-on effect on the supply chain.

High utilization for outside container depots

In a meeting with stakeholders on October 25 called by the Export Development Council-National Committee on Transport and Logistics (EDC-NCTL), CDAP president Roger Lalu said utilization at CDAP members’ container yards in Metro Manila was at 115%.

He noted that previously, CDAP members’ container yards had a capacity of 21,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), but this figure has now dwindled to 13,000 TEUs after some members closed their depots.

He added the dwell time of empty containers has also doubled to 30 days from 15 days.

Lalu said some members are already setting up container yards outside of Metro Manila, particularly in Bulacan. He noted a yard with a capacity of 3,500 TEUs is already operating in the area while another with a 4,000-TEU capacity will open in November.

He added that CDAP is looking at other locations in Bulacan to put up a container yard, but securing permits from local governments is a challenge.

AISL president Patrick Ronas acknowledged that, at the time of the EDC-NCTL meeting, “shipping lines are having a problem positioning their empties out, that’s why it’s also causing some pressure on the part of the off-dock depots.”

He said shipping lines also understand that terminals are trying to control their space allocation for empty containers in their yards as they are prioritizing laden containers.

Ronas said this is why carriers are now looking at moving some of the empty containers to either Batangas or Subic.

Two more depots are being put up in Bulacan by non-CDAP members, he noted.

Some shipping lines are also using the ICTSI-operated Laguna Gateway Inland Container Terminal in Cabuyao, Laguna for empty-container returns due to congestion at Metro Manila off-dock depots.

During the Oct 25 meeting, it was also suggested that shipping lines send sweeper vessels, just as they did during the 2014 Manila port congestion, to evacuate empty containers from the country.

AISL general manager Atty. Maximino Cruz said some shipping lines are already doing this, though not regularly. Ronas pointed out, however, that sweepers are “very costly” to operate in light of higher fuel and charter costs. – Text and photo by Roumina Pablo

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