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Business still suffering months after Vancouver port strike ended
Burnaby residents Sophie Leung and William Lien hoped to finally fulfill their dream of starting an interior design business.
Instead, they've ended up with a shipping nightmare.
The couple emigrated to Canada in 2008 from China where Lien had worked in advertising and gained a background in design.
After their first attempt at starting their own interior design business failed, they saved up to try again a year ago. The couple and their three-year-old daughter even moved in with Leung's sister in East Burnaby to reduce their expenses.
As part of the venture, TeePaa Living (www.teepaa.com), they commissioned oil paintings from artists in China which they plan to use in their design work and sell online. All went well until it came time to ship the artworks to Burnaby, said Leung.
With no experience in shipping, they hired a company in China to make all the arrangements. The 300 paintings were loaded onto a ship on March 2.
The strike left numerous shipping containers trapped at the ports' terminals with no way of getting them to their final destinations. TeePaa's cargo was diverted to Tacoma, Wash. where it stayed until April 4 before it was sent to be cleared by U.S. Customs.
The paintings didn't arrive at the couple's home until April 11, when they unloaded within 30 minutes after which the truck left.
They paid $2,377 US when the goods were loaded in China and expected to pay an additional $98 broker fee and $350 for delivery to their door.
Instead, the strike added on costs of almost $4,647 US.
After assurances from the shipping company, Translink Shipping Inc., that that would be the end of it and they could avoid the debt being sent to a collection agency, they paid the hefty bill on April 28.
But a month later, Leung said, they received more bad news: Translink Shipping said they owed another $1,215.
"I won't pay because they said clearly the case is closed," said Leung. "I think they break their promise."
Paying the last bill strained their finances, and her husband has had to take on a part-time job to make ends meet, she said. They can't afford a lawyer but are hoping to find someone that can give them some free legal advice.
Leung believes the new fee is for the delivery truck being parked in front of her house for 12 days, something that's not possible since it left as soon as it was unloaded.
That's not the case, according to Barbara Johnson, general manager of Translink Shipping.
Johnson declined to be interviewed, but in an email to Leung from the company's headquarters in Seattle she said the charge was because "the trucker was not able to return the empty [container] back to the carrier within the allotted free time due to the port strike."
In an earlier email, Johnson said customers were all notified of the "force majeure status." That is, a delay caused by events out of the company's control, such as the strike, would result in customers being responsible for any additional costs that arise.
The carrier had already reduced the charge by 25 per cent, Johnson wrote to Leung. "The strike was a costly issue for many. Not just you."
Media reports immediately following the end of the strike said it would take several weeks to clear the backlog of containers at the Vancouver port.
Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) acts as a landlord and regulator of the terminals, which sit on federal government-owned land, but it doesn't get involved in disputes between shippers and their customers, said PMV spokesperson John Parker-Jervis.
"A similar situation during job action was when containers got stuck on dock and people were being charged a fee for the storage of the container when they couldn't actually get anybody to pick it up," said Parker-Jervis.
"I know there were definitely a lot of cases of cargo being held up because of the backlogs." But it's unusual to still be dealing with the effects of the strike so long after it ended, he said.
"This appears to be a bit of an extraordinary, outstanding case."
Paul Holden, president and CEO of the Burnaby Board of Trade, said none of its member businesses had yet contacted it with similar concerns.
"Due to the importance of the port a great many businesses would have been affected at the time of the dispute. Since then, we hadn't heard anything, certainly this far out from when everything was resolved."
The BBOT does try to advocate on behalf of its members if requested, he noted.
Meanwhile, there have been rumblings that the issue of trucking companies undercutting minimum pay rates, which were set to end the strike, is ongoing. Unionized truck drivers are threatening to strike again unless Port Metro Vancouver enforces the rates.
Holden said he's been keeping an eye on news of the port.
"Obviously, we're hoping that doesn't escalate and those concerns can be addressed properly."
As for TeePaa Living, Leung said they're still not sure what to do.
"Bigger companies can cover that [added cost] … but for us, no."