Operations at Philippines' largest ports hit by strike

Affected truckers and porters staging a picket in front of Moriones gate at the Port Area in Manila.

MANILA - Operations at three of the Philippines' biggest ports have ground to a near halt after the Manila city government imposed a daytime truck ban to ease traffic in the capital's streets, prompting truckers to strike.

Business groups have warned of "chaos" that will ensue unless the Manila city government reconsiders the ban. Aside from business disruptions, many Filipinos in Singapore send parcels home to their families by ship.

Truckers from the Integrated North Harbour Truckers Association have been on "holiday" since Monday, the first day of the ban's implementation, paralysing cargo handling at the Manila International Container Port (MICP), South Harbour, and Manila North Harbour.

These three ports are the biggest in the Philippines in terms of cargo volume and revenue generation. They account for half of the customs bureau's collections.

The Manila city government began implementing an ordinance this week that bans trucks, except for those carrying petrol and perishable goods, from the capital's streets from 5am to 9pm.

Under the old system, trucks were banned from Manila's streets from 6am to 9am and between 3pm and 9pm. Some 6,000 trucks move in and out of the three ports every day.

A scuffle ensued on Monday when police tried to remove a barricade of trucks put up by the strikers to shut the ports down.

In a statement, the Bureau of Customs disclosed that with most truckers sitting it out to protest against the ban, only four containers were released from MICP on Monday. No containers came out of the South and North Harbours.

A representative of Regent Forex, a major shipper used by Filipinos in Singapore, told The Straits Times it was too early to say whether its shipments would be disrupted, as the truckers' strike was only in its first week, and its last cargo left only last Saturday.

Filipinos in Singapore use services like Regent Forex's to send to their families back home "balikbayan" (home-bound) boxes that they fill with all sorts of items, from laksa seasoning and detergents to laptops and 40-inch TVs.

European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines president Michael Raeuber said the ban would essentially lead to "delivery chaos", adding: "That would be close to economic sabotage."

Mr Rodolfo de Ocampo, president of the Port Users Confederation, said the truck ban "would result in inefficiency and congestion at the port".

"There are 6,000 trucks in 24 hours that go in and out of ports, and compressing it to eight hours will result in inefficiency and congestion at the port," he said.

Mr Christian Martin Gonzalez, vice-president of International Container Terminal Services and general manager of Manila International Container Terminal, said the effect of the truck ban is "tolerable" right now, as the volume of exports, especially electronics, have yet to return to normal since the global financial crisis.

"Absolute chaos is expected once export volume picks up. Manila ports are not designed to handle a daytime truck ban," he said.

Mr Gonzalez said the MICP would reach full capacity by next Tuesday if no withdrawal of cargo is made by trucks.

Asian Terminal, the operator of Manila South Harbour, will reach full capacity by next Monday, while Manila North Harbour will reach its limit by March 28.

Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada was defiant. "We are only thinking of the interest of the majority," he said. "They can protest whenever they want, but we will not bow down to them."

rdancel@sph.com.sg

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.