Moving cargo in times of corona

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The global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has delivered a big blow to the supply chain and logistics industry in a very short span of time. Cargo movements around the world are suffering, especially so with service providers’ customer service, sales and pricing teams separated geographically and being forced to work remotely. Teams are siloed and over reliant on emails and phone calls leading to poorer customer satisfaction and lack of visibility and accountability to the management. This is making an already difficult situation worse, but still, cargoes kept on moving.

Upamanyu Borah

To keep operations going has not been easy during the pandemic. As we saw in China in January and February, goods stopped moving overseas during confinement. Truck drivers delivering merchandise to ports were forced to stop. Containers that did make it to port sat on loading docks in Shanghai, the world’s busiest container port in 2018, and only one of seven of the world’s busiest ports – all in China. India’s largest container port, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), saw its cargo volumes fall by about 33.97% in April 2020 compared to the year before. Additionally, with airlines grounding most of their passenger aircraft fleets, the drastic reduction in air cargo is already causing supply chain havoc.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the importance of the duty of care extending throughout the supply chain, with decent work and human dignity assured at each step. Companies will need to seek new ways to operationalise this through collective industry approaches as well as bilateral business relationships.

The invisible workforce

In normal times, transport and logistics workers represent the (largely invisible) lifeblood of our global economy, keeping supply chains moving around the globe, with 90% of goods being transported by sea. During this pandemic, transport and logistics workers are a critical part of the global response to manage the situation as the coronavirus spreads and country after country goes into lockdown.

Working alongside governments in their duties to protect citizens, global companies have a responsibility to step up like never before to work individually and collectively to protect workers throughout their supply chains. The invisible workforces of transport and logistics are every bit as essential to surviving this global crisis as their more frontline colleagues in supermarkets and hospitals.

Many of the logistics services firms are setting in motion a mix of online and offline services designed to help carriers and independent truckers, as well as shippers, maintain operations while also minimising risks related to the virus.

In this time of global crisis, it is more important than ever to keep supply chains open and to allow trade and cross-border transport to continue. Transit needs to be facilitated, too. Landlocked countries need access to food and medical supplies through neighbouring countries’ seaports and airports.

To ensure that vital goods reach consumers and hospitals in destination countries, responsible agencies should coordinate and cooperate within and among countries so that indispensable goods reach the populations in coastal and landlocked countries alike.

Supply Chain challenges during COVID-19

With COVID-19, the supply chain’s ‘symptoms’ are completely unforecast, leaving manufacturers and distributors either with excess inventory or un-meetable demand.

Not only are demand forecasts completely unreliable, but there is added confusion as most companies switch to remote-working models. Instead of coming into the office to manage shipping, teams must connect over the internet to manage freight operations.

Without a technological framework in place, many teams may be left struggling to stay afloat.

This shake-up of standard shipping procedures has also resulted in disruptions in lanes and carrier availability.

In an effort to provide some relief to companies shipping essential goods, the government has allowed the industry to resume full-fledged operations across green and orange zones starting May 04; however, those were restricted to sell non-essential items in red zones, as per a Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) notification.

With shipments from China, and now Europe, slowed due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, keeping warehouses in the country open and truckers employed has become a priority for B2B suppliers and buyers, logistics experts say.

The invisible workforces of transport and logistics are every bit as essential to surviving this global crisis as their more frontline colleagues in supermarkets and hospitals.

Commenting on the same, Arun Pandit, Head of Sales (B2B), LoadShare Networks says, “We have reinvented ourselves to become more effective and relevant in handling the current supply chain bottlenecks by quickly making a pivot to delivering essentials through intra city milk-run model utilising smaller trucks and intercity full truck loads (FTL) instead of our forte, i.e. part truck load (PTL) movements. We have completely shifted focus to food, beverages, pharma, and groceries.”

“We have been proactive in getting government permissions at each and every region to operate vehicles to serve essential goods. Many of our clients were finding it difficult to find the right process to get the permissions to operate from a manufacturer’s point of view. We assisted them to understand the correct process and the right channel to get the permissions. Lot many distributers and SMEs were also struggling to do their secondary movement to retailers due to lack of vehicles and labours. We helped them deliver the necessary materials to retailers which were eventually delivered to end customers, ensuring that there is no panic situation caused due to stock outs. The in transit cargo is either safely delivered to our nearest warehouse or the cargo is being monitored on a daily basis by GPS tracking of the vehicles and by regularly capturing pictures of the physical stocks for the trucks which are stranded,” Pandit adds.

Last-mile delivery

With the coronavirus causing fluctuations in e-commerce orders, logistics services providers offering online services are taking steps to keep orders moving through warehouses and truckers on the road.

“In the wake of testing times like these, the onus is on logistics players like us to keep the supply chain running for essential items,” says TA Krishnan, CEO & Co-founder, Ecom Express.

“Being a dedicated e-commerce focussed logistics services company, we take care of shipping needs of the industry. Our operations are currently running in 30 towns which include Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kolkata, Lucknow, Gurgaon, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, New Delhi, Noida, Greater Noida, Ghaziabad, Faridabad, Patna, Pune, Coimbatore, Surat, Bhubaneswar, Allahabad, Agra, Kanpur, Ranchi, Jaipur, Nagpur, Raipur, Dhanbad, Goa, Madurai and Salem. We are gradually adding more cities in compliance with the state government and local authority’s directives.”

Ecom Express has digitised the pickup and delivery processing thereby empowering field workforce through mobility solutions SRUTi (Scan, Record, Uplocation Transmission Instrument) and SATHi (Service Accountability Transmission Handheld instrument). SRUTi is outfitted in the first mile operations, which involves the pickup and movement of the shipments from a Customer’s Pickup point; and SATHi follows the last-mile delivery of the package to end-customer. These mobility solutions have capabilities with field based validations and end-to-end visibility in the complete value chain.

The last-mile of the transport and logistics ecosystem involves a high rate of ‘gig’ economy workers, ‘self-employed’ delivery drivers, and zero contract hours workers whose income, job security, and safety net in the case of falling ill are deeply precarious. These non-unionised, unrepresented workers are a crucial link in the complex global supply chain as online retail surges.

What protections are being afforded to them as they work? What safety net is in place for those falling sick or losing their jobs?

With shipments from China, and now Europe, slowed due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, keeping
warehouses in the country open and truckers employed has become a priority for B2B suppliers and buyers.

To this, Krishnan says, “We are taking various measures to mitigate the impact of the lockdown. This includes reworking on our business plan and taking necessary steps towards resuming operation in more cities and towns for the delivery of essential goods. While doing so, we are ensuring security of customers’ orders and the safety of our staff. We have formed a COVID-19 crisis committee to quickly respond to the emergency situations to ensure employee health, safety and operations continuity. Meanwhile, our management team continues to monitor the situation, review and update operations in line with evolving advice from the Government authorities and World Health Organisation (WHO).”

End-to-end supply chain management company, TVS Supply Chain Solutions who is operating essential services for its customers belonging to FMCG, telecom, banking & financial services (ATM), media, healthcare, and agri and other critical import/export and process industries, has ensured full protection is of its employees when running its operations.

Last month, TVS SCS deployed over 1000 ‘Corona Warriors’ (employees and drivers engaged in the lockdown time) supporting the logistics activities. The execution team is provided with ‘Covid Kavach’ – a personal protective equipment (PPE) kit besides fully trained to maintain social distancing norms.

“We are following all social distancing norms and requirements of personal safety, as we proactively reach out to our customers as well as others to be able to understand their specific requirements and support them in these critical times,” says R Shankar, CEO – India, TVS SCS. “Wherever required, we are in a position to import a large size through air freight for any urgent, critical requirements for our customers.”

TVS SCS is already working with the Karnataka government in managing healthcare equipment services and spares such as ICU equipment and ventilators at all primary and community health centers, taluk, district and government hospitals. The company is also offering mission-critical services and closely engaging with state governments and private healthcare organisations.

“We are working with a few ventilator manufacturers to be able to manage their inbound and outbound supply chain. On the other hand, through our global sourcing capabilities, we are procuring PPE kits from Asian markets to send it to our global customers. We have already started importing these kits for Indian customers,” Shankar adds.

Pain stands in the way of plan

Given the crippling shortage of workers and trucks, and skeletal air cargo operations, the industry is staring at an uphill task, even as curbs begin to ease depending on the infections in particular regions. Besides, the government’s orders allowing goods movement is keeping a slow pace and yet to reach local authorities in many districts.

“The whole supply chain is picking up very, very slowly,” says Vineet Agarwal, Managing Director, TCI, one of India’s largest logistics companies. “Things have improved a little bit in the past few days and movement of trucks has started, but we have to wait to see how things shape up soon. There could be local governments that may not open up.”

The movement of essential goods, such as pharmaceuticals and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), has significantly improved, but “there is still huge congestion at ports,” Agarwal says.

The last-mile of the transport and logistics ecosystem involves a high rate of ‘gig’ economy workers, ‘self-employed’ delivery drivers, and zero contract hours workers whose income, job security, and safety net in the case of falling ill are deeply precarious.

Taking into account the same, Mayur Toshniwal, Managing Director, Future Supply Chain (FSC) says, “Even though restrictions on transportation of non-essential items have been removed, there is not much happening on ground due to a variety of issues, such as poor availability of transport. Customer’s overall business is almost standstill and hence only in-transit stocks are being transported. Manpower availability has been low too.”

FSC, according to Toshniwal, is placing a very high priority in securely transporting essential goods from various suppliers to their respective clients. The company is ensuring that its customer’s stocks are safe. “Our enhanced technology across warehouses is helping us to operate in a better way with limited staff. At the same time, we are reviewing our operations on a daily basis and trying to effectively function during this global crisis.”

Giving a brief snap shot of how FSC is trying to tackle the risks facing the company’s essential workers, Toshniwal explains, “There are various measures that we have undertaken at our facilities to keep the workforce safe. Additionally, our HR teams have provided all possible support to ensure that our associates are provided with due transportation facilities. Apart from that, conforming to the guidelines issues by the Government, we continue to approach the relevant regulatory authorities to get our employees working passes. These passes enable them to reach our warehouses without facing much issue.”

Keeping freight clean and moving

Restrictions on trade and cross-border transport may interrupt needed aid and technical support. It could disrupt businesses and have negative social and economic effects on the affected countries. Governments should therefore continue to facilitate movement of not only relief goods, but goods in general, to minimise the negative impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.

With India announcing a total lockdown starting March 24, all domestic flights came to a grinding halt. Initially, international flights were suspended for a week from March 22 but later extended coinciding with the lockdown. “We are seeing a significant impact on air cargo operations at Airports Authority of India (AAI) run airports,” says Keku Bomi Gazder, CEO, AAI Cargo Logistics and Allied Services (AAICLAS).

Although there were restrictions on exports from India with an understanding to slow the spread of the disease and contain it with maximum restraint, Gazder says, the safety precautions and support from the government helped them to continue 24×7 domestic air cargo operations under ‘Lifeline Udan’ initiative of the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), with extensive support in clearance of COVID-19 related consignments with zero disruptions from the cargo terminals.

AAICLAS’s air cargo facilities have been strictly following the International Air Transport Association (IATA) updated guidelines framed in association with World Health Organisation (WHO), International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), and Airports Council International (ACI) on COVID-19, meant for all aviation specific activities related to inward and outward movement of air cargo, with the objective of ensuring appropriate planning and action at all levels in order to mitigate the risk of spreading of the pandemic.

“From temperature checks at the entry and exit gates, to periodic checks for front-line staff so as to monitor their health, avoiding close contact with anyone and everyone, to providing PPE kits to the specific category of workforce handling baggage and cargo to and from the countries affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, we have practiced and followed every health and hygiene protocol,” Gazder adds.

Given the crippling shortage of workers and trucks, and skeletal air cargo operations, the industry is staring at an uphill task, even as curbs begin to ease depending on the infections in particular regions.

Sea ports and airports hold the world economy together. They connect countries, markets, businesses and people, on a scale not otherwise possible. A vast array of goods and commodities are transported through these two gateways to meet the demands of industrial and manufacturing sectors, energy needs, as well as business and consumer requirements.

Facing the current pandemic, cross-border movements of relief goods such as food and medical supplies has increased dramatically.

GVK MIAL managed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA) is the largest gateway for pharma and agro products in India. The airport, coupled with its high-end infrastructure and state-of-the-art facility, has been efficiently providing vital support in mobilising and supplying essential commodities across the country and world. Until May 20, CSMIA has transported a total of 12000 tonnes of pharma and 2700 tonnes of agro exports.

Recently, CSMIA also set a record for the highest number of cargo movements witnessed at the airport during these difficult times. The airport registered admittance exports of 725 tonnes and received 501 tonnes of import, in addition to import delivery of approximately 471 tonnes, marking the highest output of import and export cargo managed in a day despite limited resources amongst other challenges.

The cargo staff at the airport is ensuring that the directives issued by the Government on maintaining social distancing, regular sanitisation, fumigation of facilities, cargo vehicles and cargo packages along with mandatory wearing of masks as well as gloves are followed day-to-day.

For Cargo Service Centre (CSC), the leading cargo handling service provider in India who operates and manages air cargo handling facilities in Mumbai and Delhi airport as well as in Ahmedabad, Aurangabad and Mangalore airport, has been making provisions for social distancing and sanitisation measures at all its cargo terminals and facilities.

Avinash Razdan, CEO at Delhi Cargo Service Center (DCSC) says, “Our operations team has been smoothly maintaining the flow of critical and essential services. We have been reengineering the work processes to support productivity by optimising multiple handling of cargo with putting in place the recommended practices like deep sanitisation of all our facilities, regular and strict cleaning of all the touch-points, and continuous temperature monitoring at the entry gates.”

DCSC has taken into account government’s national directive for the mandatory use of its contact tracing app ‘Aarogya Setu’ for all its employees and allow entry to any person only when it displays the green status.

“Temperature monitoring procedures have been made mandatory for all employees, truck drivers, agents and visitors, and carried out at the entrances. Trucks arriving at the facility are sanitised at the entry point itself, while inbound cargo is immediately sanitised before segregation and outbound cargo at the export truck dock. In addition, adhering to the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), we regulalrly sanitise the premises between two shifts,” Razdan informs.

True value of a forwarder

There has always been risks involved with global trade whether they are political, economic, natural disaster or something entirely different and that’s where the true value of a freight forwarder rest – guiding their clients through such turmoil by identifying the optimal trade lane, mode of transportation, the best rate, securing capacity and so on.

Air freight rates have risen sharply in the last month, several executives say. Pricing on inbound flights from Asia have climbed over 75 per cent while export rates domestically and globally have increased 20 to 100 per cent.

However, even when there is little to no turmoil and organisations are humming along with zero concerns, the value of a freight forwarder cannot be denied.

Even during the current epidemic, forwarders have been able to deliver on their service commitments to customers, while working remotely. This has ensured a smooth flow of cargo even when there is a lack of visibility on movement of shipments. In the meantime, the pressures on forwarders are tightening. Payment terms have changed. To block space on a flight, airlines are asking for payment up front.

Air freight rates have risen sharply in the last month, several executives say. Pricing on inbound flights from Asia have climbed over 75 per cent while export rates domestically and globally have increased 20 to 100 per cent.

On the operational front, DB Schenker in India has been ensuring that there is minimum interruption in transportation and movement of essential commodities. “With passenger capacity reduced to zero and schedule cancellations of many cargo freighters, we had to deploy charters for supporting customers who are into vaccine and PPE manufacturing, and health care equipment. Charters are being operated for both imports and exports between India and the US, and European and other Asian countries,” says Vishal Sharma, CEO – Cluster India and Indian Subcontinent at DB Schenker.

“We ensured that all necessary permissions from the authorities were obtained to secure timely movement of the goods, workforce, trucks and staff. Additionally, we had to deploy security escorts not only for cargo protection but to navigate the check post and barricades. Our drivers were not able to articulate the need to transport goods during lockdown; hence we aligned with the security escort agency on the essential needs, relevant permits and approvals in place. This in turn was explained by them to the law enforcement personnel and local administration officers enforcing the lockdown,” Sharma explains.

In order to facilitate exchange of critical updates, daily advisories are being circulated by DB Schenker to its customers and internal network. It captures the latest government and industry updates along with DB Schenker in India operational capacity (branch and product level). “Complimenting the advisories, we have also established a digital channel for daily communication to the employees,” Sharma says.

“Our preparedness to the pandemic, weeks in advance when it started in China, has helped us to continue business with most of us working from home. The tools, technology and product experts have brought us closer to customers although we are miles apart. Over 95 per cent of our staff remains virtually engaged and working from home. Besides, our digital platforms– Connect4Ocean and E-Schenker are fully operational and serving our customers round the clock,” Sharma adds.

With above, the fundamental priority for DB Schenker, Sharma says, remains the safety of its drivers, loaders and unloaders. “In terms of taking effective measures, we have made the usage of PPE mandatory for our employees who are at ground zero of activities and working on field including at contract logistics sites for keeping health care supply chains active,” Sharma says.

Value-added services such as customs brokerage, consulting, warehousing and more are no longer value-adds but instead expectations from customers. These can no longer be considered differentiators among freight forwarders.

World’s largest freight brokerage company, C H Robinson has also given top priority to the wellness and safety of its employees while executing against its comprehensive business continuity plans. The company remains fully operational around the globe, continuing to service all domestic and global logistics and supply chain needs while adhering to government and health regulations.

“Our global reach and technology, position us to adjust operational support as needed to ensure uninterrupted service for our customers and contract carriers during this volatile market. We currently have more than 11,000 employees around the globe working remotely, fully equipped with the connectivity and information flow required to process shipments,” says Madhav Thapar, Vice President – South Asia for C H Robinson.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted some of the value that freight forwarders bring to their clients. And with the “pandemic that is now sweeping the world and shredding supply chains, the supply chain rule book no longer applies”. Value-added services such as customs brokerage, consulting, warehousing and more are no longer value-adds but instead expectations from customers. These can no longer be considered differentiators among freight forwarders.

“C H Robinson’s network of experts is readily available to help with production planning and forecasting to ensure shippers are prepared with strategy and execution support. Our well established partnerships with ocean carriers, truckers and other lead stakeholders in the supply chain enable us to stay on top of new developments and respond with agility and efficiency. Our scale, technology, and single, multimodal global transportation management system, Navisphere enable us to continue to support our network of nearly 200,000 customers and contract carriers worldwide,” Thapar says, adding that they continue to monitor the impacts to global and domestic transportation and provide updates through our client advisories while the COVID-19 situation remains fluid.

Top Indian freight forwarder, Skyways has reacted with a lot of agility and adaptability while extending entire product offering to its customers, says the Group’s Managing Director, Yashpal Sharma.

Sensing a lot of caution for its team members, all new and existing processes, procedures and standards at Skyways have kept safety in the forefront of all activities. “The new eco-system of Skyways for the next six months has been built, whereas above 80 per cent of our workforce can still ‘work from home’. New processes which allow almost 100 per cent digital flow of documents across our verticals, carrier partners and customers has been set up for smooth functioning with least physical interaction,” Sharma mentions.

On the additional precautionary measures adopted for the well-being of the company’s staff, as well as in warehouse operations, Sharma says, “Our warehouses are being sanitised at least twice everyday and so is our fleet of vehicles. We have taken all the necessary precautions and even our front-end team members are provided with protective gear and equipment.”

Even during the current epidemic, forwarders have been able to deliver on their service commitments to customers, while working remotely. This has ensured a smooth flow of cargo even when there is a lack of visibility on movement of shipments.

“Our business contingency team has been on top of each facility and personnel to ensure a safe working environment and implemented a lot of preventive and engaging steps. Besides, the leadership team of Skyways Group has been reviewing each aspect at a micro level on a daily basis,” Sharma adds.

Takeaways for the future

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the importance of the duty of care extending throughout the supply chain, with decent work and human dignity assured at each step. Companies will need to seek new ways to operationalise this through collective industry approaches as well as bilateral business relationships.

With above, it is imperative that regulators and law enforcement authorities recognise logistics industry as essential services to keep critical supply chains up and running during a crisis, while enforciing necessary health protocols. Any weak link undermines the resilience of the entire chain on which we all rely.

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