Gerton Hulsman’s opinion piece recently, “Cargo ground handlers deserve to be treated better…”, triggered a great deal of emotional response and agreement. The problem is both widespread and well-known. Yet, how did it come to this and what should be the way forward? Winfried Hartmann shares his views with CargoForwarder Global.
The situation we are in today, where ground handlers struggle to find new staff, and where those working for them are on wages that are insufficient to cover their basic living requirements, is a
homegrown one that has been a long time in the making.
For decades, the cost pressure in our industry has been passed down from top to bottom. At the very bottom are those carrying out the physical work on the warehouse floor. Not everything can be automated in air cargo handling, and the people performing these remaining essential tasks, are the ones having to compensate for the existing market conditions by being paid absolutely minimum wages.
The birth of oligopolies and multi-level outsourcing
The result of this consistent cost-pressure is two-fold: on the one hand, the trend is towards concentration in ground handling, where one can already see the development towards oligopolies at some locations: an effect that customers certainly did not intend and have even fought against in the past. The danger of limited competition is that it removes the flexibility of choice and therefore also the option of supporting companies with a fairer approach to working conditions.
The other effect of cost-pressure is subcontracting which often leads to sub-subcontracting or even sub-sub-subcontracting. Among other things, this trend provides an incentive for moonlighting as well as social security fraud.
If a company or industry is no longer able to pay its employees wages that would allow them to live adequately on full employment, they look for alternatives and are hardly motivated to carry out physically strenuous, 24/7 logistics activities.
Peanuts/monkeys and safety
Years ago, already, I often heard the phrase "if you pay only peanuts you only get monkeys.” So the industry has always been aware of the dangers of this sustained cost reduction, yet has done nothing to avoid the inevitable result. And in the air cargo industry, this is at the expense of safety! Not just airline safety, but product and ultimately human safety.
Every day, the air cargo industry entrusts billions of dollars’ worth of time-sensitive goods, life-saving pharmaceuticals, and other medical products transiting the warehouse, to employees who are appallingly paid, barely trained, and therefore poorly motivated. If they are working more than one job at the same time, they risk exhaustion and hence errors, too, which can have devastating consequences. Since these warehouse staff mostly do not see any opportunities for advancement in air freight, they do not establish any kind of connection to the products they are handling nor the companies they are working for.
The result: the air cargo industry has created a cargo precariat; thus, cutting off the currently absolutely necessary inflow of new employees on the one hand, and on the other hand, incentivizing the emergence of an irregular labor market.
What needs to be done?
There needs to be a paradigm shift in the attitude and appreciation of ground handling staff. The air cargo industry’s mindset has to change, and there should be a strong focus on how different companies compare when it comes to working conditions and fair pay.
When awarding contracts, contracting authorities should evaluate the company’s recruitment process and skills, its employee retention track record, the qualification programs it offers staff, attrition rates, indicators of correct payroll activities, its social commitment, plus they should request legally binding assurance that it will avoid undeclared work and social security fraud. In fact, contracting authorities could even consider offering contractors incentives for successful employee retention and qualification programs, to trigger this mindset shift.
Fair pay and positive examples
In order to attract new staff, ground handlers need to create awareness of the jobs on offer, showcasing positive examples of the importance of their work and skills, as well as provide adequate benefits The bottom line is that the wages paid to ground handling staff must be above the average within general logistics services, to reflect the responsibilities that come with air cargo handling. Employees need to understand the role they play in the overall supply chain, and the consequences of incorrect handling. They should be made to feel valued, receive all the required training, and provided with an environment that creates company loyalty, pride, and employee retention.
Yes, this incurs costs, yet the market must see and accept this as the most cost-effective strategy to ensuring handling quality in the medium and long-term. Better trained staff and reduced fluctuation rates also lead to significantly less “headaches” when it comes to quality control and correction efforts. And ultimately, this is significantly cheaper and more sustainable in the long run.
Show people that they are valued
We so often state that cargo is a people-business. Let us put our money where our mouth is by also giving our colleagues "on the warehouse floor" a smile and a little more personal appreciation!
Prime Air Cargo GmbH
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