Tuesday, 24 September 2013

IMO's container weighing compromise shames shipping

In the world of shipping when money and safety issues clash it is money that prevails. That, essentially, is at the root of the IMO's compromise last week to an amendment to make container weighing mandatory for all the world's ports. But for compromise read bastardise for the watering down of the amendment castrates it so much as to render it of dubious, disturbing value. Consequently, more ships and seafarers, road users and port workers will continue to suffer unnecessary loss and injury at the altar of Mammon. The environment, too, can expect deleterious consequences. It is a great missed opportunity, a shameful, shabby compromise and one that will come to haunt the objectors to global, mandatory container weighing as the risks rise with the growing size of container ships.

What the IMO has settled for is the decision by its sub committee on dangerous goods, solid cargoes and containers to accept an alternative mode of verification to the mandatory weighing of packed shipping containers, much to the chagrin of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) who since 2007 have been lobbying for a system of mandatory weighing of containers. This serious watering down means that governments will be allowed to either choose the gold standard of mandatory weighing or the lesser measure of certifying containers based on an unformulated process of verifying the weight by adding together the different constituent parts of a container load at unspecified times and places along the transport route.

"Opportunities to implement this compulsory system have been missed and as a result the ITF has launched the container weight campaign," says ITF. What the ITF and transport unions want are: 1) An international law requiring the mandatory weighing of loaded containers, 2) A process in place to address misdeclaration of container weights, 3) The ship's master to have the ability to refuse to load un or misdeclared containers.

Other interested objectors to the compromise include the United Sates and Danish governments, The World Shipping Council, The Baltic International and Maritime Shipping Council, The Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, the International Association of Ports and Harbours and the International Cargo Handling Coordination Association. This is curiously at odds with bodies like the Global Shippers Forum (GSF) praising the IMO for making the 'right' decision and that the compromise proposal was "the best possible outcome for shippers and the maritime industry". This apparent chutzpah, however, becomes less curious when one considers what the GSF is. It does not represent the carriers (shipping lines)  nor the governments who are routinely defrauded of billions of pounds every year through deliberate under declaration of container payloads. Carriers lose huge sums because they charge by the container not the cargo weight within and there are limits to the maximum weight allowed in them. This means that if shippers and/or their packers were honest about cargo weights they would have to hire many more containers. Governments lose heavily because their import taxes are calculated on cargo weight.

An idea of the scale of the fraud can be adduced by the numbers of TEUs shipped by sea six years ago -- 141 million, or 1,272 million tonnes. The GSF is a body representing shippers' interests, i.e. the owners of the cargoes whichever way they are transported. On their website they crowed that they had "persuaded the ILO/IMO not to introduce new regulations increasing shippers' responsibilities for the safe stowage of containers throughout the whole supply chain in favour of enhanced guidelines in the promotion of training and best practice." It went on to say that it believes the compromise proposed is "the best possible outcome for shippers and the maritime industry as it provides a flexible and workable solution which can be adopted by industry without significant cost or delays in the supply chain.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the reasons they put forward for the need for compromise  are shallow if not disingenuous. They and the IMO argue, for example, that a number of countries and interested parties had made the point that there are many ports in the world where there is not the equipment nor the finance to acquire it to weigh every container and so an alternative method was needed. This seems a shallow, if not baseless, argument because the cost of retrofitting container handling trucks with weighers and linking them with the terminal operating software is tiny when set against the extremely costly port container handling equipment. It is not, therefore, an unrealistic expectation to fit mobile port container handlers like RTGs, reach stackers and straddle carriers with weighers. Weigh bridges would not be feasible as these would be delaying choke points while ship-to-shore cranes so fitted would be too late in the handling process.

To claim it is in the best possible interests of the maritime industry would strike a discordant note with the many bodies who opposed or complained about the compromise deal. Apart from the bodies already mentioned they also include: Asian Shipper' Council, the European Shippers' Council, the European and International Freight Forwarders Association and the European and Maritime Terminals and Stevedores representative who all complained that the compromise proposal was based on insufficient evidence and would make little difference to ship operations. The European Shippers' Council went further, urging that the regulation covers only one aspect of the dangers of working with containers and so ignores others such as stacking and packing of containers and as a result will do little to enhance overall safety standards.

                                                            ITF fights on

Explaining the flaws in the IMO's compromise to the amendment, Paddy Crumlin, ITF President and Dockers' Chair, said: "We have a compromise that some countries will put in place a process that is likely to be bedevilled by the obvious questions: Who will certify, when and how?" They now seek transparency and clarity from the governments that fail to take up the safer method of how they plan to made certification work. "We are not prepared to walk away from this so we are redoubling our campaigning efforts and planning further lobbying," said Mr Crumlin. Concluding, he said: "It must be made a legal requirement that containers are weighed accurately. There must be repercussions for those who misdeclare. That's what we are campaigning for because anything less is just not good enough"

The GSF maintains that the majority of shippers act responsibly and comply with their responsibility to make accurate cargo declarations. That may be so but evidence suggests that the minority of fraudsters is so big as to pose an unacceptable, global risk to seafarers, dockworkers, road users and the environment. ITF has consistently been of the opinion that the incidence of misdeclared and overloaded containers is widespread in the shipping industry and any solution that does not require the container to be weighed before loading will be subject to abuse. They base their view on container ship loss investigations by bodies like the Maritime Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB). When the container ship, MSC Napoli, was beached in 2007, MAIB found that no less than 20% of all the on-deck containers were over 3 tonnes heavier than their declared weights and in one case the difference was 20 tonnes. This was not carelessness on the part of container stuffers; it was deliberate fraud. On this, MAIB was scathing about the marine industry's hypocrisy. "While key industry players will attest that safety is of paramount concern, evidence obtained during this and other MAIB investigations suggests that in reality the safety of ships, crews and the environment is being compromised by the overriding desire to maintain schedules while optimising port turnaround times," it said.

Only two months before the IMO watered down the amendment, the 90,000dwt container ship, MOL Comfort, broke in two, subsequently caught fire and sank, fortunately without loss of life. The insurers for the 5-year old, 8,000 TEU ship reportedly may be in for a US$400 million bill plus the value of cargo lost. Had this loss occurred close to shore its 3,100 tonnes of fuel oil would have posed a serious environmental threat. The causes may never be known but the smart money is on the longitudinal stresses induced by under-declared container weights which shippers routinely refuse to take with any seriousness. There have been plenty of other warnings about excessive container weights leading to dangerous incidents which are not always allied with adverse sea conditions. Feeder container ships have regularly been rolling over, even against quay walls. The MOL Comforts' loss also brings into question whether the construction standards of large container ships are good enough to stand the potential rigours at sea. If this writer were a shareholder in Maersk he would pray nightly that its launch of the world's largest ship, the 18,000 TEU vessel, Maersk McKinney Moller, will never mean accepting containers that have not been weighed at ports. Its loss at sea fully loaded with, say, 182 million ipads would run into billions of pounds, a thought that should also worry insurers.

The MOL Comfort loss, however, failed to concentrate minds at the IMO deliberating the container weighing issue. It is hardly surprising. Shippers' organisations have been defending their flawed position on container weights for over 40 years. It is stark testimony to the industry's overriding will to put money before reasonable safety practices, but it is tainted money that will most assuredly become blood-stained.