Shipping in troubled waters

By: Kabeer Yousuf

MUSCAT: With the slide in oil prices and its manifold repercussions, leading shipping companies in Oman are saying that the “going is getting extremely difficult” as this sector is supposed to be the first to bear the brunt of such a dramatic plunge and are forced to cut corners to stay afloat in the market. Major bookings for consignment from public as well as private sectors including that off supplying diplomats’ vehicles which runs into millions of rials business have been either cancelled or stand postponed until further notice which has apparently jeopardised the financial plans of most of the companies in the business.

“We are one of the few sectors which is easily affected by fall in oil prices and we are experiencing a blow to our income as many of our bulk bookings were cancelled recently,” a leading shipping agent in Muscat told the Observer.

It is not just the oil prices that is impeding the growth plans and questioning the very existence of these ‘movers’. Lack of qualified and experienced local staff, inconsistent staff who remain absent from work with no prior notice are again posing a major threat to shipping companies as they fail to meet deadlines in delivering goods.

“We train local staff spending thousands of rials in cooperation with Oman Maritime College for some months only to see that they leave us before the contract period pointing at some loopholes,” a leading shipping agent in Oman for the past two decades, said.

“We are not getting experienced and qualified personnel from the local market and we are forced to take expatriates who are experienced in the industry, but plans are in the paper only as we are not getting clearances,” CEO of another shipping company, added. “I recently met the Minister of Manpower who verbally promised to look into the matter seriously and find some solution to help us,” says another shipping executive.

“You step into any shipping company these days and I am pretty sure they would need at least four skilled staff members, but the issue has worsened as we are not getting clearances for expat employees. We are finding it extremely difficult to run the show,” he said. To provide new job opportunities to Omanis in private sector, the Ministry of Manpower has recently localised four positions in the shipping sector. These include custom clerk, clearance clerk, clearance agent and clearance broker and new visas will not be issued for these positions and labour permits and IDs issued for the holders of these professions will remain valid until their expiry date, but will not be renewed thereafter.

But the fix is that, although sufficient percentage of Omanisation is maintained by these companies, visa clearances are still a nightmare, most of them said. “Although we are maintaining 78 per cent Omani presence in our firm, we are not getting clearances for new employees which is a must for expansion and other development programmes within the limited budgets”.

“Oman has all the potential to become a regional hub for shipping and other logistics activities because of its strategic location and for having the longest coastline in the region”, opines general manager of a leading shipping agency, who has spent most of his life in shipping and allied activities in the GCC and Europe. “But we need to identify the needs of this sector and offer them a smooth sail without which these companies will suffer in silence, and how long can a company endure losses?”, he asks.

With the shifting of the port from Muttrah to Sohar recently, although the expenses have gone high in terms of transport, demurrage and insurance, time in getting the goods cleared is still an issue. “You go to any other port in the region, you just have to sit at your office and do everything online to get goods cleared in 15 minutes.

On the other hand, at Sohar Port, you still have to go personally and clear your goods which will take not less than a day for a person from Muscat to carry out this task”, said senior another shipping official.

SOURCE: OMAN DAILY OBSERVER

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