By Chathuri Dissanayake
Under pressure from unions and importers, the Government yesterday reinstated Director General of Customs P.Sarojini .M. Charles, who was to be replaced by a retired Navy officer.
Finance and Mass Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera yesterday withdrew the proposal presented to the Cabinet to remove Charles and appoint retired Rear Admiral Shermal Fernando to the job following protests and a week-long work to rule campaign by Customs officials in the country.
“The Director General was given a three-month extension and Minister Mangala Samaraweera told the Cabinet that he was not aware of the investigations she was conducting as claimed by the unions. He said she was removed due to poor performance and hoped that she would continue the investigations and present the reports to him,” Cabinet Minister Mano Ganesan told Daily FT.
The decision taken by Samaraweera came under fire even from members of the Government who were opposed to the idea.
During a press briefing, Power and Renewable Energy Minister and former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake said that he was against removing Charles from her post. “I am against the decision,” he told journalists.
The strike, which was called off last night, saw the piling up of un-cleared containers in the yard as Customs officials engaged in a work to rule campaign since last Thursday. At present over 6,000 containers remain in the container yard.
Custom clearances, which usually process about 1,200 containers a day, dropped to less than 500 due to the trade union action, resulting in a serious backlog of clearing in even essential goods imports.
According to Essential Food Commodities Importers and Traders Association Spokesman Hemaka Fernando said there were about 1,000 containers holding perishable goods in the container yard awaiting clearing.
“This week we expect more than 600 containers. We are grateful to Customs for releasing perishable items such as onions, potatoes and garlic. However, dry goods such as chilies, dhal, sugar, sprats and dry fish have not been released. There are goods packed in more than 1,000 containers. We are only given three days to release goods from Customs. If these three days pass, there are additional costs that we have to pay to the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). If a transport lorry gets delayed for one day, we have to pay Rs. 15,000 a day. Therefore we appeal to the Government to end this standoff,” he said speaking to journalists last morning.
Noting that they may have to discard the goods if there was further delay, Fernando said that importers would also have to incur huge costs due to the excessive delays and other disruptions that had happened due to the Customs work-to-rule decision.
“Our costs are escalating at a rapid rate. Our companies have to pay interests on bank loans, warehousing charges, shipping charges, and logistics costs. These charges together will spill over onto prices of essential goods that will have to be paid for by the consumers. If these issues continue, then we may well have to close our companies and exit from imports altogether,” he lamented.
Essential goods importers yesterday closed their shops in Pettah in protest of the current situation, noting that they had no stocks available to sell.
“Earlier we had a system where the three days excluded weekends and other public holidays, but now it is from the day the ships arrive in port. From day one we have to pay warehousing charges.”
The importers also requested the Government to wave off demurrage charges incurred during the Customs work to rule campaign as they had incurred huge costs due to the trade union action.
“We are going to write a letter to the Government asking for demurrage charges from 30 January to whenever this problem ends to be waived. We consider this to be a very fair appeal as these are huge costs that have been incurred through no fault of our own and we consider it unjustifiable to transfer these costs to the consumer,” Fernando said.