Auckland port seeks Govt help to bring in overseas crane operators as container ship congestion continues

Auckland’s port, the hotspot of upper North Island freight congestion issues, has applied to bring in five overseas crane operators to help ease a labour shortage.

The choked-up port has asked Government ministers and officials for help to fast-track immigration applications and secure quarantine arrangements, a spokesman said.

Port management would meet Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Transport Minister Michael Wood later this week, he said.

Container ships have been queuing to unload at the port, the country’s main marine gateway for imports, causing shipping lines to divert vessels to Tauranga and more recently Northland, freight to pile up in the supply chain and delivery delays to manufacturers, suppliers and retailers.

The Auckland Council-owned port company has blamed the problem on the pandemic’s impact on global shipping and a shortage of stevedore labour supply, but critics, including the Maritime Union, point also to the “failure” of the port’s automation project and associated worker cutbacks due to “overconfidence” in the project.

The project has been underway for four years and has yet to become fully operational.

The port’s latest operational update continues to describe the container terminal operations as “severely degraded, major delays”.

In the latter part of last year when container ships sat for up to 10 days in the Hauraki Gulf waiting to be unloaded, the port said it was trying to recruit 50 waterfront staff.

A spokesman said the recruitment target was now 85 people – but this including existing staff being trained in crane operation.

“We have seven staff lined up for crane operator training and we have applied to bring in five operators from overseas.

“It takes 10 weeks to complete basic training for a crane operator and then 12-18 months before they are considered proficient – it only takes three weeks to train a skilled crane operator from overseas.

“Hiring skilled operators from overseas will help us tackle the congestion problem immediately while ongoing training of our own people will ensure we have enough crane operators long term.”

He could not say what countries the operators would come from.

The port is also hiring and training straddle drivers and lashers – people who put on, and take off, the lashing bars and twistlocks that keep containers secure on a ship.

The spokesman said so far the port company has recruited or offered jobs to 44 external candidates, and 21 staff were being trained for the higher-skilled roles of crane operators and straddle drivers.

Twenty more jobs still had to be filled, mostly lashing roles.

While the status of the container terminal operation remains severely degraded, the port spokesman said the port had managed to get some empty containers loaded and dispatched offshore. However there was still a surplus of empty containers in New Zealand, he said.

A global shortage of containers is exacerbating the world’s shipping congestion problem,created by unprecedented consumer demand for goods and a huge decrease in air freight space due to Covid.

Maritime Union of New Zealand earlier this month in a statement said while Covid certainly had an impact on port operations, it was only half the picture.

“The pandemic brought pressure to bear on port operations and revealed pre-existing weaknesses in management planning,” national secretary Craig Harrison said.

“Three unresolved issues are the failure of the automation project and related labour supply issues, the port’s failures with health and safety and the failure of senior management and the board to get a handle on these two problems.”

Harrison said it was “ridiculous” the port was now advertising for staff overseas with the enormous cost, delays and difficulties involved with quarantine and associated risk to New Zealanders.

The port company’s chair Liz Coutts resigned recently.

Neither the port company nor Auckland Council will reveal the cost so far of the automation project. Industry insiders put it at several hundred million dollars.

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