Cargo stuck at bonds: customs clerks complain of delays

A customer collects his packages at Swissport Cargo Service, Golden Grove Road, Piarco - Ayanna Kinsale
A customer collects his packages at Swissport Cargo Service, Golden Grove Road, Piarco - Ayanna Kinsale

Trinidad and Tobago is heavily dependent on imports. From a billion-dollar food bill to emergency imports of parts and machinery to continue with manufacturing and production locally, TT uses its ports to supply the country with a majority of its needs.

Transit sheds such as the Swissport, Aviation Business Ltd (ABL) and the Amerijet bonds are in many ways the gateways through which these goods pass, having the task of unloading containers, tallying goods and separating them for customs clerks to deliver these goods to businesses.

But for the past month, there has been a backlog in one of the larger transit sheds through which pass the lion’s share of goods not able to be imported by ship.

Customs clerks and businesses are complaining that delays at transit sheds and bonds in Piarco are racking up costs and making it difficult to plan. But sources at transit sheds at the airport have said an increase in the number of brokers and goods, along with the very necessary checks in goods for illegal items such as guns, drugs and other contraband makes it necessary for workers at the transit sheds to take more time.

Clearance challenge

“Clearing cargo is becoming a real challenge,” said one customs broker at the Swissport bond on Tuesday.

The broker complained he had had a shipment in the airport since the beginning of August and it took close to a month for the items to clear. He said he still has to have them transferred to another bond.

“It was only last Friday that the goods cleared,” the broker said. “I came today to collect and prepare my documents, but I can’t, because there was a glitch in the system, so I have to go back to Caribbean Airlines, because it was a CAL plane that brought in the cargo, then get back to my office to sort it out.”

He said if brokers wanted to speed up the process, they could have their goods transferred to another bond. However that would take a PTR – a product tracking and reporting request – which will come at additional cost.

Swissport Cargo Service, Golden Grove Road, Piarco. - Ayanna Kinsale

The broker told Business Day that for every day that his items were at the bond, he was charged rent.

He added that if he wanted goods transferred right away he would have to pay the workers at the bond overtime, a cost that starts at around $1,800.

“Once you are able to pay the overtime, then you are able to go forward.”

A customs clerk at the bond told Business Day the delays at the Swissport bond started after the bond was shut down by the Customs and Excise Division in August.

“They didn’t take any cargo from August 17,” the clerk said. “They got instructions from Customs and Excise. Then there was a pile-up and now they are taking a long time to tally the goods.”

The clerk said because the goods are unable to be cleared at the Swissport bond, most brokers would have to do a PTR to transfer the goods and have them tallied at another bond. This too, can rack up additional costs if the goods stay beyond the free-rent period.

“So they could find themselves paying two sets of rent,” he said.

Unnecessary stress

Chairman of the Confederation of Regional Business Chambers Vivek Charran said the delays at the airport are adding unnecessary challenges to the ease of doing business that would ultimately put additional inflationary pressure on the economy.

A customer collects his package at Swissport Cargo Service, Golden Grove Road, Piarco - Ayanna Kinsale

“It makes logistics difficult. It makes it difficult to plan, particularly in instances where people would bring in parts, because they are needed in a manufacturing plant and it is the quickest way to bring in machinery.”

The process of importing items should be simple – you purchase your items from your supplier abroad, a broker from the point of origin makes arrangements for export and it is shipped to TT. Charran said this part of the process takes a maximum of two days to complete.

Then through the customs brokers you clear the goods using entry forms which would have details of the shipment including where the items are coming from, invoices and other additional documents.

When clearing, duties have to be paid, which will be up to 30 per cent of the cost of the items in the shipment, as well as VAT, which is 12.5 per cent of the cost of the items. Sources at the bond told Business Day that once the cargo reaches the bond, workers would tally the items, and with the information provided by the customs broker, the goods would be cleared and released for delivery.

Businesses also have to pay freight ,which is dependent on the weight and size of the items.

He said items such as eggs, medication and flowers have to be flown in, because they are perishable.

Charran added that delays at the ports, particularly in the case of these perishable items, could lead to loss of revenue that businesses can’t get back.

“With delays, money is lost. You also have a situation where (if) you are bringing in perishable items, if it is not cleared on time you will incur losses. Even if you are insured you still lose the sale of those items and the projected revenue.”

Contraband slowing down port

Last month, Minister of Finance Colm Imbert spoke on transit sheds at the Piarco Airport, saying inefficiencies and a steady flow of guns and illegal contraband have contributed greatly to delays.

At a virtual press conference in August he said some bonds have to be shut down periodically to intercept illegal guns and other contraband.

A forlklift driver carries a crate at Swissport Cargo Service, Golden Grove Road, Piarco - Ayanna Kinsale

“They (customs) were not happy at all about the way illegal things have been coming into the transit shed,” Imbert said. “These things have two sides – you have the ease of doing business, which we must improve, so we want to get things in and out quickly; but then you have things like under-invoicing, tax evasion, and then you have the problem of importation of illegal arms and ammunition.”

He said customs is considering consolidating all the bonds into one.

“It’s an active matter under active discussion and we will hopefully find a mutually satisfactory solution.”

In April, after a two-day symposium where Caricom heads gathered to discuss crime as a public health issue, the region’s heads agreed to declare war on illicit firearms, some of which come through legal ports of entry, including airports.

That same month three men, including two TT nationals, pleaded guilty to attempting to smuggle firearms into TT, which were intercepted by local and US federal officers in 2021. The three men – Tevin O'Brian Oliver, Jameal Kaia Phillip, and Edward Solomon King III – admitted to being part of a gun-smuggling ring that unlawfully smuggled guns into the country through legal ports, by hiding them in boxing/fight equipment, speakers and household items.

The weapons intercepted in 2021 included a Taurus G2C 9mm pistol, an SAR Arms SAR-9 9mm pistol, a Taurus G3 9mm pistol and a Ruger Security 9mm pistol. Investigators also found an assortment of ammunition, police sirens, police blue lights, bulletproof vests and magazine holders.

The Customs and Excise Division is tasked with revenue collection and protection, ensuring trade policy is applied correctly, collecting and disseminating trade related information and statistics and protecting physical borders.

Business Day spoke to sources at one of the bonds ,who added that the number of brokers has increased since the covid19 period, which is adding to backlogs.

“With covid19, the number of couriers has grown tremendously. Now you have ten times the amount of services bringing in much more goods than before covid19. We can’t take all these things in one day.

“Then we have to tally the goods, which is a slow process, but we have to be careful. You have to check the cargo." The source said most of the cargo at the transit sheds undergoes 100 per cent examination.

He added that clerks and workers at the bonds also have to deal with trans-shipment cargo.

Business Day tried to reach the comptroller of customs via the Customs and Excise office numbers, but each number rang out. Business Day later discovered several of the listed numbers were inoperable.

Business Day also contacted Swissport, and was told by an operator that a manager would contact the paper. Up to press time, Business Day had received no calls.


"Cargo stuck at bonds: customs clerks complain of delays"

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