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Aqaba’s Customs Yards a Punishment for Drivers

16 May 2022 , | Safaa Barghash

The minute ships loaded with goods arrive at Aqaba port containers terminal, they start unloading their cargo into trucks that head to the designated customs inspection area in yard number 4, and this is when a waiting process that sometimes extends over several days begins according to Mae’n Rawashdeh, a truck driver. Mae’n says he sometimes waits for three days without any extra pay allowance by the transportation or clearance companies for his lost time.

The Aqaba Company for Ports Operation and Management, which operates yard number 4 allows trucks to wait free of charge for the first twenty-four hours until they complete the procedure for their containers inspection. If this drags on, the company collects a “storage fee” that ranges between five ($7) and twenty Jordanian Dinars ($28) for each container per day for a period of seven days. This fee varies based on the type and size of the container and is charged to the clearance companies, even if those trucks were not responsible for such delay.

Firas Ibrahim is a truck driver who says, “I had the container opened at 8:00 am, and the inspector finished the examination process after four hours. I kept looking for workers to reloads the goods in the container for more than four hours after that.”

The chairman of the Aqaba Clearance Companies owners committee, Mohammad Jalal, believes that the delay in inspection procedures is due to the lack of sufficient customs ramps where truck loads are subjected to the inspection. Customs yard 4 has 64 such ramps where approximately 350 containers are inspected every day. Moreover, the number of workers who unload the container merchandise for inspection does not exceed 160 knowing that the rate of manually inspected goods after the X-ray examination is high. The chairman adds “In normal situations, the inspection process needs more than six hours to complete usually, therefore the waiting period might last days.”

The head of the syndicate of the Aqaba (customs) Clearance Companies in Jordan, Dheif-Allah Abu-Aqoula, also pointed out the need to provide sufficient numbers of trained workers to deal with fragile and expensive goods. He accused the freelance workers who unload trucks of deliberate procrastination in completing the required work sometimes. These workers also “do not hesitate to ask for extra payments in the form of gratuities, which may reach 40 Jordanian Dinars approximately $55, (if they were to rush to complete their tasks).”

Workers who unload trucks could be divided into three categories:

  • 85 workers are employed full-time by the Aqaba Company for Ports Operation and Management
  • Contracted workers employed by the Aqaba Company for Transport and Logistic Services whose services are used by he Aqaba Company for Ports Operation and Management
  • Freelance day workers provided by external contractors are hired upon need

Delays Due to Customs Inspection

Mohammad, a truck driver feels that the delays are usually due to several factors. In one incident for example, employees were pushed to spend seven hours inspecting goods manually after the X-ray images pointed to defective goods. It turned out later that “only one box was defective” and has wrongly raised the suspicion of the officers. In the end according to Mohammad, the ramp was occupied for more than ten hours.

What exacerbates the delays, according to Mohammad Jalal, are usually the expanded inspection regimes of the customs administration and to remedy that he has called for the adoption of a gradual approach allowing the customs department to inspect a small specimen of the shipment, and to expand such inspection if anything was found to violate the law. He also adds, that “While it is true that out of every one thousand container there are only twenty-three that might contain suspicious merchandise, each inspection though causes the ramp to be out of service for about twelve hours.”

Dheif-Allah Abu-Aqoula adds that “all containers” pass through an X-ray machine to detect any contraband items, and the result of the scan usually determines the lane that they must take afterwards.”

Customs yard number 4 has three lanes, the red means that inspection and examination of goods are mandatory, the yellow lane means that documents should be verified and would proceed out if all is found to be in order. The third is the green lane which means that neither the goods nor the documents need to be inspected.

Abu-Aqoula balmes such delays on the process of re-directing cargo containers from the yellow and green customs lanes to the red one as often there is a shortage of staff designated for the inspection process and/or the unloading and re-loading process. He also adds that “Ninety-nine percent of the goods that are transferred for further inspection after X-ray do not have any defects. Sometimes, the concern is raised due to faulty goods stacking only. The solution is to inspect such goods at the customs centers, as this would facilitate the smooth movement of goods and limits the overall delays, added costs or damage.”

According to Abu-Aqoula, the most important issue is to streamline the officials authorized to request further inspection of goods as various parties interfere usually in the process, such as those involved in overseeing adherence to Standards and Metrology Organization, the Jordan Food and Drug Administration, among others, hence the need to make sure the green lane remains agile to facilitate the flow of goods.

The director of the Aqaba Customs authority, Colonel Ahmad Al-Akalik, said that his main task revolves around clearing all cargo to proceed to their destination without delay but added that “The problem is that Aqaba is a border point and a customs clearance center, therefore, goods that pass through are either transiting or entering Jordan, and both categories must be inspected.”

Al-Akalik revealed that the Customs authority has taken many steps to tackle the delay problem, such as “minimizing the attention paid for transiting goods, while speeding up the inspection for goods that are due to be inspected in Amman or Sahab customs clearance centers, hence there is no need for such goods to be transferred to yard number 4.”

To achieve this, customs authorities have called on the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority more than once to increase the number of handling staff, provided that loading and unloading workers provision tenders must be conducted through an external service supplier specialized in cargo handling operations.

Moreover, transit goods must exit automatically if their X-ray machine show nothing suspicious or are free of any container standards violations. According to Al-Akalik, customs authority has reduced to 2% their inspection criteria on transit goods, while incoming goods are subjected to 30% of such set criteria.

The former Commissioner of Revenue and Customs at Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority between 2015 and 2022, Mahmoud Khleifat objects to the current recorded rise to 35% of goods inspected in Aqaba. He believes that this contravenes Aqaba Special Economic Zone Law and its amendment that sets such inspection at 15% maximum, which is clearly responsible for the current bottle-neck problems.

Khleifat wondered, “What is the benefit of inspecting goods in Aqaba that were destined to the Iraqi market? Transit goods should not be inspected to begin with, and the path that transit containers must take can simply be tracked electronically to ensure the process is secure enough.”

Activating Night Shift Clearance Operations and the Online “National Window”

In the worst case scenario trucks nowadays have to wait for 48 hours. According to Al-Akalik, when the delay goes beyond that, it means there is an inventory or a customs declaration issue. It is not just a matter of shortage in qualified workers; he says, “customs and clearance companies work different shifts, while the customs authority works 24 hours per day, the clearance companies leave at five in the evening, and some clearance companies have only one clearance agent on duty per day.”

With only thirty-six customs officers usually covering the operations at yard 4 and other containers designated sites at the port, Al-Akalik believes that the problem could end by doubling the number of ramps and by increasing the number of unloading workers in addition to shipping companies complying with stacking the goods on wooden pallets to ease the loading unloading operations.

Khleifat proposes another step that would help ease the problem like activating the electronic “National Window” and activate the night shift. He says, “Aqaba is the only port in Jordan. The Minister of Finance, Mohammad Al-Assass, had previously sent an official letter to the Aqaba Authority and asked them to refrain from sending containers to yard 4 and to keep containers within the port area despite that this might lead to piling the containers up in the port.”

The “National Window” is an electronic program that organizes customs data through the participation of more than 50 entities of which 32 are government departments.

There have been extensive meetings for various parties working in the transport and supply chain, clearance and cargo companies representatives, the customs authorities, and the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority in their efforts to overcome the delay problems. Yard 4 problem has persisted and solutions never crossed the proposal stage. Driver Mae’n Rawashdeh and others hope this would be implemented to stop wasting time, money and efforts.

Safaa Barghash
Safa'a Barghas is News a news correspondent at Al Mamlaka TV and she also manages Al Mamalka's office in Aqaba. Barghash has a Masters' degree in Media