Northport Friday schedule conundrum

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PORT KLANG: The Port Klang Authority (PKA) and clients of Northport are facing a delicate situation: ensuring operations are not disrupted at one of the country’s busiest ports, while making certain the religious obligations of the port’s 2,400 Muslim workers are not compromised.

Last Friday, Northport  (Malaysia) Bhd instituted a new policy which caught freight forwarders and logistics players by surprise — operations suspended for 70 minutes during Friday prayers to strike a proper “work-life balance”.

The notice was posted on the port’s website and circulars were issued to clients and associates informing them that as part of a trial, operations will cease at or around 12.40pm and resume at or around 1.50pm every Friday to allow Muslim staff to attend Friday prayers.

Northport intends to officially implement it on Jan 2. Also caught unawares was the PKA.

In a text message to The Edge Financial Daily, PKA general manager Datuk Capt David Padman said the authority was not informed of the Friday prayer break that halted cranes and containers,  delayed ships from berthing and setting sail, and hindering paperwork to facilitate shipments.

“PKA was not informed of Northport’s Friday prayer break.

“I have directed Northport’s management to withdraw their notice with immediate effect as this is not in line with our privatisation agreement and Port by-laws to keep the port open 24/7,” he said.

Apart from the huge implications of such a break, where Northport’s cranes conduct about 30 moves (cargo loading and unloading) per hour, industry players lament that this was the first time an essential service sector was taking such a break.

This could also impact Northport’s output which boasts a throughput volume of 2.89 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) last year.

Selangor Freight Forwarders and Logistics Association vice-president Datuk Chia Han Teun said his members were also not informed of Northport’s new Friday operations.

“We are surprised by this, especially when ports are supposed to operate 24/7.”

He suggested that all work be continued using non-Muslim employees as this arrangement is used by government agencies such as the Royal Malaysian Customs Department.

“Any delay due to work ceasing will cost money. It will affect our closing times and to make matters worse, the next day is half-day work for many companies.”

He said the association would be meeting soon to see how best to deal with the matter which includes respecting religious sensitivities.

Airfreight Forwarders Association of Malaysia chairman Walter Culas said Northport implemented the move without any consultation with stakeholders.

“In the essential services industry, you cannot make a unilateral move as any action will have a chain reaction on a whole lot of industries. The repercussion of this move is big as Port Klang is one the main ports of the nation.” He said all essential services operated around the clock for 365 days a year.

“Just like the KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport), we cannot have the airport shut down for prayer breaks. Passengers and cargo must continue to move. In fact, Northport is a gazetted essential service that needs to operate continuously.”

“This move impacts shipping lines, the logistics industry and freight movers. The flow of the private sector doing business is affected. Everything has to be changed. Even a 10-minute difference is a lot in this industry. It’s like a shutdown.”

Culas said if the implementation was continued, ships would soon start using Westport as there were no such breaks there. Meanwhile, Central Region Shipping Association president K Santhasagaran said the move did not augur well for the industry as it meant productivity loss and a host of other problems.

He said association members have raised many questions such as whether pilot boats and tug boats would also be taking a break.

“What about crane operations? One crane operator can move up to 50 containers an hour.”

He said Southpoint, part of Northport, was a tidal port and ships can only berth or leave at certain times based on the tide.

“If that time is during the break time, what will happen? The ship will have to wait for another 12 hours! This will cost so much. Who is going to bear these losses?”

Santhasagaran said he was not against prayer breaks, only that he did not want port operations to be disrupted. He added that this was the first time any port was implementing such a policy and urged Northport to rethink the initiative.

Northport CEO: Muslim staff requested break, no impact on port

PORT KLANG: Northport (Malaysia) Bhd chief executive officer (CEO) Rubani Dikon said he was merely accommodating the request of the port’s 90% Muslim staff when he issued the directive.

“Right now we are just starting on the trial phase. I want to see whether it is workable or not to ensure that the religious rights, requirements, and needs of our Muslim workers are met while not waylaying the needs of our customers.

“So, if our customers have an urgent shipment, we will continue our operations but this is mostly on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes there are not many ships on a Friday, thus we can afford to halt operations but we double up afterwards to ensure productivity isn’t affected.

“Other times, the ships are not on an urgent schedule and again we can afford to halt operations for a short while. However, if the ship is schedule to dock at another port urgently, we will continue operations. We are operating on a 24-hour schedule anyway,” he explained.

Rubani gave his assurances that the port’s productivity will not take a turn for the worse. Asked if the port’s customers need to submit a request to continue operations on Friday, Rubani said that [the port does] know each ship’s schedule and gave a guarantee that this trial phase will not affect customers who need to get urgent shipments out.

On the Port Klang Authority not being aware of the break, Rubani said he had sent a circular to all customers and authorities.

“We have informed all relevant authorities through our circular. It’s just that we did not have a discussion prior to this as we are in a trial phase. Our trial phase is from November to December to see the impact and whether or not it is workable.

“If there are weaknesses, we will find a way to rectify them. We will study the impact,” said Rubani.

He also explained that based on the trend last year, November and December had the least shipping activities. However, he also admitted that it is quite difficult to predict shipping patterns and trends as it can change annually.

“We are not rigid in implementing this trial. We have and we will consider both sides, our customers and the needs of our Muslim workers,” said Rubani.

When contacted, Abi Sofian Abdul Hamid, group managing director of parent company NCB Holdings Bhd, said he heard of the issue on Saturday but has not received any reports.

“I just got the information. I need to check with my people first. I should have the data tomorrow (today),” he added.

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 17, 2014.