Voice for recognition to Customs Broking and Freight Forwarding as essential services by respective governments is strengthening the ground worldwide. It was evident from the discussions in a Webinar on Global Perspective on Logistics at the backdrop of prevailing COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar was organised by Federation of Freight Forwarders’ Associations in India (FFFAI) in association with International Federation of Freight Forwarders (known as FIATA) on May 29. Keynote speakers of this international webinar were Mr AV Vijaykumar, Chairman, FFFAI and Mr Basil Pieterson, President, FIATA. The webinar was also addressed by other FFFAI leaders including Mr Shankar Shinde, Chairman-Elect; Mr S. Ramakrishna, Immediate Past Chairman; Mr Samir Shah, Past Chairman; Mr Debashis Dutta, Past Chairman; Mr Alan Jose, Vice Chairman and Mr Dushyant Mulani, Honorary Secretary. Mr Tej Contractor, Managing Committee Member, FFFAI and President IIFF moderated the very interactive and successful virtual meet, which was participated by more than 400 audiences from across the globe including India, Europe, USA, Middle East Asia, Australia and Africa.     

FFFAI is one of the members of FIATA which is the International body of logisticians and represent the industry in prestigious bodies such as United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), United Nation Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL), World Customs Organisation, World Bank, World Trade Organisation, International Chamber of Commerce and others.   

In his speech Mr Vijaykumar shared experiences during last two months, navigating through the changes that not only a Customs Broker had to make, also constant representation to the government to ensure that the industry can adapt and improve processes to ensure safety. Underscoring the emergence of digital era drastically he referred to this webinar as an example: “Covid-19 crisis connected countries and continents electronically on a single platform through virtual meetings and conferences. Even though such facilities were available earlier, the necessity was not felt exponentially. This very video conferencing is a classic example on how we are together though we are divided by space and time. This trend is bound to continue and probably conquer the future of business models.”

Commenting on the present crisis and challenges owing to Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown he assumed that it would be one more of the passing clouds. “We will, as have been our approach and past experiences, overcome with no damage. But the reality of the possible damage it could inflict on the human life and the human race changed the complexion of handling the pandemic on a global scale,” he pointed out.

The FFFAI Chairman also commended the government for their timely efforts to maintain logistics and supply chain at this crisis time. “There was total lockdown and life came to a standstill. But we compliment the Government that within a day they listened to our voices and agreed open the doors for supply chain. On the third day of lockdown, international transport of cargo – export or import – was treated as essential and member of FFFAI were in the forefront of supporting movement of cargo for the nation,” he pointed out.

Further mentioning the government’s quick and pro-active intervention Mr Vijaykumar stated that Indian Customs rolled digital solutions at an amazing speed. “In fact, by the time the first phase of lockdown could end on the 14th April 2020, we had a fully electronically driven Customs platform. This enabled seamless, paperless, contactless transaction of cargo clearance. Other than physical handling of cargo rest was fully automated and implemented thereby literally maintaining real social distancing. We need to recognize and we do recognize the efforts of Indian Customs to have stretched our limits beyond normal and to have literally worked 24 x 7,” he added.

Mr Vijaykumar also applauded Ministry of Shipping’s effective efforts in lessening burden on exim trade. Ministry of Shipping instructed all Ports, Terminals to evacuate the containers to outside facilities to ensure creation of any congestion. Round the clock, the Ports, the Container Freight Stations and Customs Brokers joined hands and methodically moved the containers to off dock Customs facilities. Thus, congestion at Ports and Terminals were eliminated. Ports also pursued with local authorities for all stakeholders to be accorded priority passes and facilities to keep the supply chain moving. The Ministry also advised Ports, Terminals and all Custodians to be supportive and waive all penal charges during lockdown to ease the financial pressure on the industry.

The air cargo custodians were also advised by the Ministry of Civil Aviation to waive storage charges. Commerce Ministry played a nodal role in connecting the stakeholder requirements and expectation with the related government authorities to balance the situation. 

Mr Vijaykumar was confident of bouncing back. “Globally there is no exception to economic impact, but we are known for our resilience and hence will overcome this attack also,” he said. The FFFAI Chairman, however, made a caution too. In his opinion future will be throwing a larger challenge – retention of business, contracting volumes, shrinking margins, expanding expenses, financial strains, credit terms, servicing debts, unpaid services and much more. “It is not that we are new to such environment but it just that we are to again rediscover ourselves. Tough times manifest the strength in us,” he emphasized. 

Mr Vijaykumar was concluded with very strong message to the global logistics industry as well as governments/authorities: “We recognize the frontline warriors of the corona virus crisis – the doctors, nurses, police force, hygiene workers. But the unsung frontline warrior to have moved the nation, to have supported the availability of essentials and to have maintained the supply is our fraternity – a proud group that always delivers irrespective of the adversities.” 

Clarifying FIATA’s position Mr Pieterson applauds the inclusion of freight forwarding within many nation’s definitions of ‘essential services’. “However, more needs to be done. Greater consistency in global responses, together with the implementation of facilitative measures, are required to ensure the continuance of well functioning supply chains to move essential goods to where they are most needed throughout this crisis and beyond,” he stressed.  He pointed out to the facts that the fight to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has fuelled a host of measures by governments worldwide mandating the closure of many aspects of societal daily life and restrictions to the movement of people. In many countries, only certain designated ‘essential services’ are still permitted to remain in operation. However, there remains no coordinated worldwide approach, and definitions of what is an ‘essential service’ may vary.

FIATA considers these moves to be critical to national responses to COVID-19. Freight forwarders, well-represented by FIATA’s 40,000 members, ensure the supply of the world’s cargo to communities and economies around the world, including food and basic necessities. Disruptions to this activity will affect the national supply and stocks of necessities such as food, medicine, hygiene products and other important goods in the fight against COVID-19. Already, global reports indicate shortages of necessary equipment. 

“It is therefore crucial that governments continue to recognise the freight forwarding industry as an ‘essential service’ and FIATA encourages them to continue to do so with greater consistency and coordination. It is internationally acknowledged that governments must first recognise the nature of the freight forwarding activity as an ‘essential service’, and then put in place policies that facilitate the effective rendering of these services,” the FIATA President highlighted FIATA’s stand.

Commending FFFAI’s strength and its successful collaboration with the government Mr Pieterson calls on its worldwide members and national governments to collaborate, so that freight forwarding industry can continue to perform its vital role in delivering the world’s cargo, including essential goods, to those who need it most. 

In his speech Mr Pieterson also elaborated on Global Perspective on the impact of COVID-19 on Logistics Industry including empowering the freight forwarding community in these difficult times, compliances, required support from government and industry stakeholders, increasing digitalization, skilling, WTO trade facilitation, rebounding national economy and survival of freight forwarders & logistics industry.