The Port of Port-of-Spain.

Staff shortage and an appointment system due to COVID-19 were identified as the reasons for backlogs and delays being experienced at the ports.

This was revealed during a virtual hearing of the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on Finance and Legal Affairs into the ease of doing business in T&T. Member Keith Scotland, MP for Port-of-Spain South, questioned the officials from the Port Authority and Customs and Excise Division about what steps were being taken to ease the public and business community’s burden at the ports in Point Lisas and Port-of-Spain.

Ag Customs and Excise Comptroller Vidyah Marcial said there were no backlogs of containerized cargo, but then the Authority’s Ag CEO Robert Ramsubhag admitted that there were indeed backlogs. Marcial said, “At present, there is no backlog of containerized cargo at the port. However, the non-commercial cargo is done on an appointment system on the port.”

Ramsubhag then said there was and is a backlog at Shed 10 Barrel Shop.

“Due to COVID social distancing measures we were forced to implement an appointment system. Initially, we were doing 40, we moved up to 70 customers a day and then to 100.”

The appointments, he said, were done in conjunction with Customs, and overtime measures were implemented in an attempt to handle the backlog.

“Yesterday we had a meeting with Customs and they are also citing that they have security concerns which would require heightened inspection and they are asking us to go down to 40 customers a day. An average container has a hundred customers’ goods inside. Over the period November to January, we handled over 133 containers so that would be 1300 customers that we have to handle, each customer sometimes having multiple packages to go through. And that is where the backlog is in trying to meet the COVID protocol and the Customs requirement to do the 100 per cent inspection.” However, he said they met with Customs on Thursday to find a way to address this issue while meeting the security requirement.

Asked by Scotland why the issues at the port can’t be resolved in a shorter time, Ramsubhag responded, “As the Comptroller just mentioned they are operating at 60 per cent. Most of the times we request additional Customs officers they are unable to supply, and that is one of the main reasons we won’t able to have the troupe that we desired.”

Marcial also revealed that the port doesn’t have a modern and proper scanner. She said they were not in a position to purchase a new scanner which costs about $14 million.

“In order for us to do any sort of scanning in the proper manner, we need updated equipment with new technology. In terms of our human resources, right now we are at a capacity of 60 per cent of our staff.”

She said they also need ongoing training for staff to operate the scanner since the staff is often rotated. In answer to a question by member Jayanti Lutchmedial, Port Authority’s general manager Trudy Gill-Conlon said half of the port’s equipment has passed its economic life.

However, she said the Authority received $8.5 million under the Public Sector Investment Programme and has purchased a ship-to-shore crane to replace one of the 44-year-old cranes. The crane is expected to arrive at the end of this month. Gill-Conlon also said that tenders were sent out for smaller pieces of equipment.