Port congestion: don’t you dare blame the dockers!

7 Jul 2021

Dockers never stopped.

The Covid-19 pandemic showed the vital importance of dockers to our society. Dockers have a key role in the supply chain – without port workers, the essential goods and medical supplies would have stopped arriving in our ports.

The first priority during the pandemic was to act urgently to tackle the emergency, including more stringent health and safety measures to protect port workers. However, during the following months, the true face of this global crisis was revealed.

The economic and social effects of Covid-19 on European ports only started to be visible after March 2020. It began with series of blank sailings from Asia that implied 20% to 50% fewer vessel calls on the main Far East – Europe container-shipping trade route. This had severe consequences for those ports that are reliant on China-Europe trades.

The increased operation of mega-container-ships calls has brought about another difficulty. Now, port calls are less frequent but when port calls do happen, it’s with more cargo. The average moves-per-ship has significantly increased, creating peaks in ship-to-ship operations and yard activity at the terminals impacting land-side operations, particularly truck arrivals and departures.

The dockers are working under increased pressure, with peaks requiring increased effort on some days, followed by several days with little or no activity at all.

Despite the difficulty, dockers have never hampered operations.

“The dockers attended work as normal and were frontline workers, playing a crucial role in keeping cargo moving, ensuring that essential goods were loaded and unloaded and that all shipments reached their final destinations all over Europe” explains Terje Samuelsen, ETF Dockers Section Chair.

Over the last months, disruptions in the supply chain have reached unprecedented levels, leading to the current congestion in ports.

However, the causes go beyond the port sector. The causes are entirely unrelated to the limited availability of dockers.

On one hand, the shipping sector is stimulating the ever-increasing size of container vessels in order to benefit from economies of scale. This represents a challenge for the other links of the supply chain: mega-ships require appropriate infrastructure, cause large peaks of activities, delays, queues in ports and in the hinterland.

On the other hand, naval gigantism raises environmental and social issues that need to be properly addressed, while also increasing occupational health and safety hazards – as shown by the recent Suez Canal Blockage.

Furthermore, in Covid times congestion has affected most of the industries, leading to fundamental changes in consumers behaviour, routes to market and supply chains. All the communities had to adapt to the new normal in their everyday life, learning how to deal with delays and disruptions. The shipping lines shouldn’t be an exception.

Press have lately suggested that quarantine and the secondary effects of Covid-19 vaccination on workers, together with the upcoming vacation period, are leading to further instability of the supply chain.

“This is unacceptable” – adds Terje Samuelsen – “the real causes of port congestion should be sought in the unreliability of the shipping companies and the lack of proper planning to face this exceptional period, instead of putting the burden on port workers who never stepped back during this crisis.”

Don’t you dare blame the dockers!