Customs must change their Parcel free-charging policies

I hope you could find space to publish my article on the way our Customs charges fees on gifts. I’m not the one to whinge about as we have now come to accept the poor delivery of services from government officials as reality – they never listen but some things really need to change and I would really like to hear from others on this issue.

OK bloggers, especially those living overseas, not sure if I’m the only one who sees a problem with our Customs’ behaviour when it comes to the way they administer charges on parcels meant for gifts and presents to family and friends back home. I have been at pains for years contemplating and trying to understand the reasoning behind our Customs’ policies on this issue. It’s almost like they have a deliberate policy to discourage people from sending presents and gifts to their families and friends. How else could one describe their behaviour of insisting to charge on almost every parcel?

The amount of money, effort and time spent on sending a parcel to Zambia are just too much and are almost not worth sending the parcel in the first place. In a poor country like ours, you would think the government and Customs would make it easier for people to send gifts since this would help contribute to the living standards of the people.

My understanding of Customs wanting to collect a fee on parcels is two-folds (note: I’m no economist):

1.       To minimise the impact on the local manufacturers so that people don’t just buy cheap foreign goods at the expense of local produced goods; and thus protect jobs.
2.       To collect revenues and tax in order to distribute wealth to everybody (the good old Marxist socioeconomic theory: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’)

Both are very well intentioned ideas. But we have to look at them in the context of Zambia. In the first instance we all know our local industries are almost dead or non-existent, especially when it comes to electronics and/or white goods. So which local industries would the government (through Customs) be protecting by charging ridiculous and exorbitant amount of fees on gift parcels? And in the second instance, surely this was not how Karl Marx intended his theory to be implemented. Why would you try to ‘extort’ money from a gift meant for someone who is already in need? Yes I deliberately call it ‘extorting’ because the experiences I have had over the years almost tantamount to extorting. In most cases the receiver who is poor is the one who is asked to pay the charges when they can barely afford their meal. I would have thought in a poor country like ours, the government would deliberately come up with policies that would encourage and make it easier for people to send goods (and ‘services’) into the country to help alleviate high levels of poverty. Alas no, not with ours. Such policies could even help bring down the cost of imported goods if you could see how (I won’t go into those details). You would also think they would know that I wouldn’t really bother to send a gift to a rich person like GBM that he already had anyway.

The whole idea of charging parcels is counterproductive. And I wouldn’t even try to go into the details of each case, because largely the policy is applied inconsistently by Customs. In most cases Customs contradict themselves in the way the demand and apply the charges. In one instance they would advise you the minimal amount on which the charges are applied is US$500; in another they would say its US$1000 or US$250 or even US$100 depending on the day and who you speak to or if they suspect you are an informed customer. In some instances I had to read and quote the official figure from some Budget speech to counter their arguments. Then there is the contradiction on how they calculate the ‘market value’ of the contents of the parcel; and how much they would ask you to pay once they have determined that value. It gets confusing but the point is these fees are not warranted or justified and they should be reviewed and revised accordingly.

Apparently the value is determined by checking the price of the gift from some database, which I suspect doesn’t even exist or if it does, it is not up-to-date. – I mean prices differ from every country anyway. They would then add the shipping fee of the parcel to the ‘value’. So if you are using Express shipping with DHL or FedEx, it means the determined total value will be higher and inflated. In the end you end up paying a charge which could be higher than the cost of the gif itself (when you include the shipping costs) – not worth it!

As though that wasn’t enough pain, Customs would ‘detain’ your parcel for several days while they are determining the payable fee on it – these guys are very inefficient. And this is what gets me really mad because it defeats the purpose of sending the parcel by Express in the first place. DHL and/or FedEx would ship the parcel within the prescribed 2 to 3 working days (sounds good, right?); but the same parcel would sit idle at Customs at the KK Airport (formerly Lusaka International Airport) for up to one week or even more in some cases. This period apparently is known to them as ‘Clearance’. In this case I would call DHL to find out why the parcel is being delayed. DHL would tell you it’s at Customs waiting for ‘Clearance’; Customs in turn would blame DHL for the delay and so you are there receiving conflicting stories and you don’t know who is telling the truth. And so you suffer like that and there is nothing you can do about it. So you vow not to send another parcel again, until you have no option but to send a parcel again next time and the same cycle and suffering starts all over again. I guess you could argue you could minimise the shipping charges by sending via regular postage. True, but the problem with regular postage is that not only does the parcel delay for several weeks, but also the chances of it arriving safely without missing or undamaged are very remote.

I’m consequently left wondering: am I the only one who goes through this suffering? How do you explain to your university student cousin or nephew of yours that you can’t send them your second hand laptop for them to use because it is too expensive to do so? How do you convince your sister you can’t them a Christmas present because Customs will try extorting money from her? What about to your friend that you can’t send them a new R. Kelly album because chances are that Customs will make it impossible to arrive on time. It’s a conundrum and quagmire that I have faced for 12 years or so. You end up sending (if there is a really high need to) anyway and in my case I end up spending a lot of time, effort and money (and I mean a lot) arguing with Customs on the phone and glad to say in most cases they end up eventually letting the parcel through without a charge, albeit after a prolonged delay. I guess you also argue an alternative is to just send money so they could buy locally but that doesn’t help you escape the exorbitant Western Union fees either – it’s a double edged sword when you think about it.

So I thought it was about time I raised this issue to solicit comments from others to see their experiences and opinions over the issue. I remember raising a similar issue in the onetime popular local newspaper. I hope decision makers would read the article and bloggers comments that will follow so they can inform their decisions. Hey Customs, it’s about time you changed and be on the side of many poor Zambians who need these small but significant gifts. To my relatives and friends back home, please kindly understand the reasons why these gifts aren’t coming regular enough like they should be – please know that Customs is your ‘enemy’.
Muyoyeta Simasiku

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