The International Maritime Organization’s Subcommittee on Dangerous Goods, Solid Cargoes and Containers will meet in London this week to consider competing proposals to require verification of container weight prior to loading.
The International Transport Federation, whose members include unions representing longshoremen, merchant mariners and other transport workers, issued a press release Monday morning stating it has proposed “that there should be an international law requiring mandatory weighing of loaded containers, a process in place to address misdeclaration of container weights, and that ships’ masters should be able to refuse to load un- or misdeclared containers.”
"This is a key issue for transport workers worldwide,” said Paddy Crumlin, ITF president and chair of the ITF dockers’ section. “We estimate containers which are declared as one weight but in reality are substantially lighter or heavier, may be in the region of 20 percent of cargo. That presents a major health and safety risk to dockers loading and unloading in ports, to seafarers onboard cargo vessels, and to drivers transporting containers on the roads.
“But this isn’t just a worker issue. When a lorry jackknifes because it can’t handle the burden of the container, if a cargo ship splits in two because it’s been overloaded, when port equipment and infrastructure is prematurely worn down because of overweight containers then you have a major issue for the public, for the environment and for shipping companies,” Crumlin added.
An ITF submission to IMO in July said the loss this summer of the MOL Comfort
, a five-year old containership, which broke in half in the Indian Ocean and eventually sank, “once again raises the question of the carriage of containers that have not been weighed and practice of operating on only a declared weight. Whilst unfortunately we can never be sure of all the factors behind this loss, overloading and poor load distribution not consistent with the carriage plan would certainly be a strong possibility based on previous incidents.”
A draft amendment to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention was prepared for this week’s meeting by a “correspondence group” that included more than a dozen trade organizations including the ITF, the World Shipping Council and 15 countries.
The draft amendment proposes the weight of containers be verified by the shipper either by weighing the packed container or calculating it by “weighing all packages and cargo items, including the mass of pallets, dunnage and other securing material to be packed in the container and adding the tare mass of the container to the sum of the single masses, using a certified method approved by the competent authority of the state in which packing of the container was completed.”
The shipper would have to ensure the verified gross mass is stated in the shipping document and be “submitted to the master or his representative and to the terminal representative sufficiently in advance, as required by the master or his representative, to be used in the preparation of the ship stowage plan.”
The draft amendment said “If the shipping document, with regard to a packed container, does not provide the verified gross mass and the master or his representative and the terminal representative have not obtained the verified gross mass of the packed container, it shall not be loaded on to the ship.”
Offering two methods to comply with the weight regulations—weighing the box, or calculating its weight by adding up the individual elements within it along with the tare weight—is a compromise that “was developed with numerous governments' and NGOs' input, through many rounds of give-and-take,” noted Chris Koch, chief executive officer of the World Shipping Council.
But ITF criticized the draft amendment, saying it “does not believe the solution… does much more than retain the 'status quo' and ultimately relies on the integrity of the shippers or their agents. With no enforcement internationally ashore and no ability to ensure states have in place oversight and certified approval methods, the process in SOLAS regulation…would be totally unenforceable and be in effect non-mandatory guidance.”
ITF said “any packed container that has not been weighed by calibrated and certified equipment, accompanied by a certificate of proof, should not be loaded on the ship.”
The Global Shippers Forum (GSF), which includes the National Industrial Transportation League in the United States among its members, said earlier this month the draft amendment "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."
But two other prominent shippers groups that do not belong to GSF, namely the Asian Shippers’ Council (ASC) and European Shippers’ Council (ESC), called for a rejection of the IMO proposal, saying it would "hamper flows of goods in the global supply chain without addressing the root causes."
ITF said “as the choke point in the intermodal transit of containers, clearly the entrance to the port is the most appropriate place to check for a certificate of weighing prior to the port or weigh containers. This realistically need only be done once for containers in transit; however in the eventuality a container arrives at the port facility without a certificate of verified weight, the port should be able to fulfill the requirement.
“Considering container terminals are generally high-tech installations with extremely costly machinery, it is not an unrealistic expectation for either weigh bridges or weighing mechanisms attached to lifting appliances to be a prerequisite and can be built into handling costs. These costs have been demonstrated by manufacturers to be minimal relative to the overall costs of machinery and operation,” ITF added.
John Lu, chairman of the Asian Shippers' Council, said in an interview that he also believes ports “would be the best control point because the shippers are a very vast group and come from all different places” that are in “various kinds of development stages with different governmental capability. So instead of controlling from so vast and various source of so-called shippers, it is easier to control at the bottleneck.”
Lu compared the idea of making every shipper responsible for certifying the weight of containers to proposals for 100 percent scanning of containers: “In theory it is simple and straightforward, but when it comes to implementation it is going to be a very heavy burden for a very big community and the effectiveness is going to be there.”
“This does not mean the shipper has no responsibility,” he said. “It is correct to educate and ask shipper to declare the right weight.”
Lu complained that proposal from the correspondence is “liner centric. The liner habit is always when a problem comes you push it to the logistics provider or the port, or the most easy one is the shipper. There are millions of shippers, they are all over the place, they are not one body.”
The disagreement over the draft amendment between the Global Shippers’ Forum on one hand, and the Asian Shippers' Council and European Shippers' Council on the other, is the most recent sign of disagreement among various shipper groups.
The National Industrial Transportation League, European Shippers' Council and Japan Shippers' Council had participated in a loose alliance called the Tripartite Shippers Group, that in 2006 was renamed the Global Shippers Forum and expanded to include the ASC and the Canadian International Transportation Association (CITA). The Union African Shippers’ Councils (UASC) later joined the group as did Argentina’s Consejo de Cargadores.
But after the GSF decided to become a legal entity to strengthen the body as an international non-governmental organization, ESC left the group in 2011, though the United Kingdom's Freight Transportation Association (FTA) remained a member, serving as its secretariat.
Lu was one of four board members of GSF along with Bruce Carlton, the president of the NIT League; Bob Ballantyne, president of CITA; and James Hookham, managing director of policy and communications of the FTA. Chris Welsh from the FTA acts as secretary general of GSF.
Lu resigned from the GSF board in August 2012 and Lu said at their annual general meeting in November AGM members agreed unanimously to leave GSF.
He said while ASC was a “stout believer on the importance of unity amongst shippers,” but that a series of events made the group decide to leave.
These include a decision to allow shipper councils from individual countries to join the GSF, which he said would undercut the importance of the regional councils such as a ASC as well as changes that he said would result in regional councils such as ASC making larger financial contribution to organization and havingonly one vote, equal to any national shipper’s council. - Chris Dupin