Movement of exports and imports crippled at Colombo port

Container haulers lightning strike

by Franklin R. Satyapalan

A lightning strike by container haulers crippled the handling of all exports and imports at the Colombo port while hundreds of container haulage vehicles parked along some key roads in Colombo caused congestion and confusion in the metropolis and outlying areas yesterday morning.

The government moved in promptly to meet some of the demands of the strikers and resolve the work stoppage launched by more than 800 container haulers from midnight on Friday.

As traffic snarls turned Colombo’s roads into a nightmare for motorists, a round of negotiations between senior officials and protesters produced positive results with an assurance to resume work.

In terms of the agreement reached, two lanes for haulage container vehicles to enter the port will be opened at the same time and seven of the nine gates would be kept open on a 24- hours basis to transport hundreds if not thousands of import and export containers. A backlog of containers had built up in the port premises since Friday night following the strike action.

The protesters called off the strike and agreed to return to work in the afternoon following SLPA Chairman, Dr. Priyath Bandu Wickrema visiting the container entry point at Ingurukade Handiya and speaking to the protestors with an assurance to resolve all their grievances on a phased out basis.

SLPA sources said container ships which had reached the port to discharge transshipment cargo were also delayed due to the work stoppage .

An urgent meeting was held between Dr. Wickrema, Mrs. Sudharma Karunaratne, Director-General of Customs, senior police officials and representatives of the Container Transporters Association at the port premises yesterday morning .Despite the government agreeing to meet some of their demands, hundred of container drivers and cleaners blocked the roads around the port, Blomendhal Road and Prince of Wales Avenue with their haulage vehicles and continued with their picketing and demonstrations.

They said they were compelled to resort to strike action as they were frustrated over their repeated unsuccessful attempts to meet relevant government officials to discuss their grievances. They alleged they had to face extortion, harassment and the "lethargic attitude" of port and customs security personnel.

"We are poor, helpless people who are making a living with great difficulty to support our families. We are harassed at every turn in carrying out our duties, which bring hundreds of millions in revenue to Government coffers", they opined.

Director General of Customs (DGC) Mrs Sudharma Karunaratne told the Sunday Island following yesterday‘s meeting initial inquiries had revealed there had been a complete shut down in the computers manned by Customs personnel at the entry points to the port around 7 pm on Friday.

Whilst the officers were discharging their duties manually it had led to an undue delay which enraged the container transporters who called for a work stoppage without informing the authorites , she asserted.

She said the breakdown in the computer system was due to change of location as the new Customs Headquarters in the Fort is making way for the Economic Ministry in the former Times building .

She said that the meeting between the representatives of the Container Transporters Association and Customs, Port and Police officials had been very cordial.

"They were allowed to air their grievances, but I am shocked and perturbed by the way the container people launched this lightning strike without informing any responsible official".

Managing Director of SLPA, Captain Nihal Keppitipola said that some of the demands the protestors raised such as inordinate delays in turnaround time which usually should have been two hours taking eight to ten hours, inadequate sanitary facilities , the sorry state of roads inside the port etc were addressed.

He said that the protestors also need to understand that there are certain matters that could not be solved overnight. "Everything cannot be hunky dory overnight as the port is in the High Security Zone and we cannot relax security checks in the short term".

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