The concern over major delays or obstructions to shipments of apparel and textile products caused by the war in Iraq never materialized, shipping executives said, but it has added to the slower processing that’s been going on.
But most of the delays have come from the cargo-inspection program that resulted from the terrorist-inspired U.S. Customs Service regulations requiring 24-hour advance notice of the contents of cargo ships before they set sail.
Those rules, part of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, were put in place following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, which led many to fear that cargo containers could be used as a conduit for smuggling terrorist weapons or operatives into the U.S. When the war in Iraq began, some sources were concerned that terrorists could respond with an attack on the U.S. or its interests abroad.
"I haven’t seen anything," said Brian Moore, director of apparel sales for Maersk Sealand Inc., the Madison, N.J.-based ocean carrier. "Inspections have been high...but there’s been no great change that I’m aware of since the war to free Iraq started."
Oakland, Calif.-based American President Lines last week experienced one delay related to the war, although not as the result of any reported threat to cargo. Antiwar demonstrators on April 7 staged an action outside its terminal in Oakland, protesting the war and contending that APL was profiting from it by shipping military cargo.
All U.S.-flag commercial carriers can be used by the U.S. to haul military material during wartime.
"We had a delay in our terminal operations of about 50 to 90 minutes and that was in part because you had quite a crowd out in front of the gates," said an APL spokesman. "You probably had about 500 protesters out there."
The demonstration began early last Monday morning, at around the time port employees were arriving for work. As a result, the spokesman said, there were more than 75 APL employees and other workers who were members of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union waiting outside the terminal along with the demonstrators."They were all within that crowd and that made it difficult," he said.
Police were called to the scene and when protesters declined to disperse, officers responded with beanbag rounds and other nonlethal weapons.
"It was a tense situation, scary for a while," said the spokesman. "But fortunately, none of our workers were hit."
Sources said since the Customs regulations took effect in February, there have been some delays in shipping and carriers have had to turn back some cargo at foreign ports because they had not received detailed manifests in advance.
The C-TPAT program allows recognized shippers who meet certain standards faster processing of imports. That has made most major shippers unwilling to take goods on board without 24-hour advance notification.
"We’ve noticed a slowdown because of the overall security issue," said Stan Wawrzonek, chief executive officer of FPA Customs Brokers Inc., based in the Jamaica section of Queens in New York. "With this 24-hours rule, we’ve noticed a slowdown because of clerical things. Computers are a wonder, but they’re not humans and when a number doesn’t match up, nothing moves."
He said Customs hang-ups had in some cases added a day to the amount of time it takes cargo to arrive in the U.S.
"Unfortunately, the way a lot of the importers are operating these days, in a just-in-time mode, missing even half a day or a day in one part of the transaction can multiply out to a week," if it results in missing a connection with another mode of transit, he said.
Shipping executives said the outbreak of SARS, which has been particularly serious in Hong Kong, one of the world’s key container ports for apparel transportation, has not yet had a measurable effect on shipping. But they’re keeping an eye on it.
The concern is that dockworkers could become sick. According to public health officials, so far, it seems the virus can’t live outside a human body for more than a few hours.
"We’re taking it very seriously," said Moore of Maersk, which has a large presence in Hong Kong. "A lot of the expats have sent their families home for a while, but the workers will be sticking around...90 to 95 percent of the people are wearing masks."Separately, World Health Organization officials on Friday said they don’t believe there is any risk of SARS traveling along with any merchandise being exported from Southeast Asia.
"We don’t consider any goods or any commercial goods a public health threat because of SARS," David Heymann, WHO executive director for communicable diseases, said at a news conference.
William Cocksedge, WHO senior adviser for international health regulations, said if SARS was transferable by products such as textiles or foods, there would be evidence of clusters of the disease with no relationship to the affected areas.
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