September 26, 2013

Licence to kill

To the consternation of my cat that was sleeping in my lap at the time, I could not help laughing as I read that the IMO was ‘on the verge of addressing the recognised and documented safety problem’ of underdeclaration of container weights by shippers. For everybody in shipping has known, expected and accepted underdeclaration of container weights for decades. Not just that, but improper stowage or securing, undeclared or ignored fire hazards and the like are rampant in the trade. 

The IMO is supposed to be voting shortly (see note below, please) on making mandatory weighing of containers before shipment, but underdeclaration of weights- which the industry delicately chooses to call misdeclaration- is just one of the issues. 

Now I have no idea about the way the IMO vote will go. I have written about this old, old problem before so I won’t repeat myself, except to point out that the IMO being on the verge of addressing the problem is akin to my nose hair clippers being on the verge of making me handsome. Chances are it just isn’t gonna happen. And even if it does, it will be diluted, circumvented or simply not implemented in many parts of the world, as is usual.

Recent capsizes and major fires on boxships have highlighted, once again, the widespread abuse by shippers of the system under which the entire container industry operates. Nonetheless, there seems to be a mini-confrontation between shippers and operators today. The World Shipping Council represents 90 per cent of global liner capacity; it wants the IMO to make mandatory the weighing of containers. Some countries like the Ukraine now require all containers discharged there to be weighed. This, after they found over a two week period, that 56 per cent of containers discharged in Ukrainian ports were underdeclared in weight. Others, including India, are planning to take similar steps. Planning, mind; there is usually many a slip.

Unsurprisingly, shippers are up in arms at the proposal.  Both Asian and European shippers’ bodies (allegedly representing 75 per cent of the trade) have warned the IMO not to vote for mandatory weighing of boxes before shipment, claiming disingenuously that such a move would seriously disrupt the global supply chain, be detrimental to trade, add to costs and, in any case, would fail to address the root causes of the safety problems tied to the transport and handling of containers.

That, frankly, is hogwash. Logistics chains ashore- even in countries with tough regulations that are actually enforced- do not seem to have any problems following shoreside safety regulations, so what makes shippers think that a simple weighing of each container before shipment is not possible? Of course it is; it has to be. What they are really saying is that the fraud some perpetuate on the system should be allowed to continue, and that their profiteering- on the back of criminal actions, since shippers are required to declare proper weights even under existing conventions- is untouchable. 

And, in the final analysis, what they are really saying is that the industry should continue to allow their profits to be more important than seamen’s lives, because it has always done so. 

Like I said, I don’t know which way the IMO will vote. We will know soon enough; they may have already done so by the time this appears in print. But I suspect that a vote for mandatory weighing will not be enough, even if that happens. I suspect that because I do not trust the system, and I do not trust many people in the system either. 

I reckon a few ports or a few countries will make mandatory weighting of containers compulsory, sooner or later, regardless of the IMO vote. As for the rest in the industry, they will make the right noises, perhaps, but nothing substantial will happen. 

For seamen, therefore, even a vote for mandatory weighing will be analogous to the admittedly hypothetical situation where Alice Eve unbuttons the top two buttons of her shirt, and then slaps me across the face when I  make my move.

Seamen are used to being slapped across the face by shipping; even so, it is about time that this criminal and murderous profiteering was stopped. It has gone on for far too long.

(Later note: Between the submission of this article and its publication in the Marex Bulletin, the IMO, which specialises in doing so, copped out once again. Its dangerous goods subcommittee chose a hedge allowing governments to choose between mandatory weighing and an alternative involving “adding together the different constituent parts of a container load at unspecified times and places along the transport route”.

The Global Shippers’ Forum called it a “sensible compromise.” 

Alice Eve, rejoice)


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