Expat Workers Face Headaches Shipping Goods

By Irwin Speizer

Aug. 7, 2008

In the recent past, a corporate employee relocating to Europe could expect to get household belongings shipped to the new location in about six weeks. But because of a shortage of shipping containers, it takes twice as long these days, and the process can sometimes drag on for up to six months.

    Coming home is no fun either. Containers of household belongings are high on the list of potentially suspicious cargo subject to search by U.S. Customs. Containers packed by household movers get opened, examined and then re­packed by dock workers, who are not known for their delicacy. Employees relocating to the U.S. have had their household goods mangled in the new era of heightened security.

    “If you saw some of these containers that were examined, the contents look like they have been put back in with a bulldozer,” says Boris Populoh, director of programs and education at the Household Goods Forwarders Association of America, based in Alexandria, Virginia.

    Populoh relates one recent case in which a household container was shipped with a few pieces of carefully crated and stowed rare art along with furnishings. The container was unpacked, inspected and repacked at a U.S. port. The loose art was then put at the bottom of the container, and chairs, tables and other furniture were tossed on top.

    While problems in shipping goods haven’t slowed down international relocations, which several surveys indicate are on the rise, the issues have caused headaches for employees moving out of and into the U.S. on assignments.

    “It is a logistical nightmare,” says Earl Lee, president of Prudential Relocation.

    The shipment of household goods out of the United States has run up against the weak U.S. dollar, which has made U.S. products more competitive worldwide. As a result, U.S. exports are rising. Empty containers that used to stack up at the Port of Long Beach in California waiting to return to China or elsewhere in Asia now are being snatched up by American manufacturers. Even farmers have started getting into the act, piling grain into containers for shipment overseas. The resulting shortage of containers is compounded by a shortage of space on ships.

    “If you can find a container, you are having trouble getting it onto a ship,” says Thomas Wei­mer, who directs global transportation for Prudential Relocation.

    When the dollar was high and international trade was mostly heading into the U.S., relocation companies had the luxury of ordering up a container and reserving space on a ship with no advance notice.

    “We used to refer to transportation on the international side as a limitless commodity,” says Greg Hoover, president and COO of Atlas Van Lines. “These days you have to book three to four months in advance. Some companies reserve space on speculation.”

    The tight shipping market, coupled with rising fuel prices, has doubled the cost of shipping household goods internationally, Populoh says.

    Getting goods back to the U.S. has its own challenges. Thanks to heightened security, house­hold goods shipped through U.S. ports are often searched. The first step is an X-ray of the packed container. Because household goods packed in containers can be difficult to positively identify, officials often require that the containers be opened so everything inside can be examined.

    “There is a much higher likelihood that a house­hold container will be pulled aside than other containers,” Populoh says. The situation affects not just returning Americans but also foreigners taking up job assignments in the United States. The situation has become bad enough for Populoh’s association to appeal to Congress for help—so far without much success.

    “What we have been trying to tell members of Congress is that this could directly affect the competitiveness of the U.S.” he says.

Workforce Management, August 11, 2008, p. 34Subscribe Now!

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with