It is not clear whether the loss of the Jian Fu Star (October 27th 2010: 13 fatalities); Nasco Diamond (November 10th 2010: 21 fatalities); or the Hong Wei (December 3rd, 2010: 10 fatalities) involved a ship that lacked P&I cover or that was not classed with a known (much less respectable) classification society. However, discussions with knowledgeable ship owners active in dry bulk trades indicate that many ships lifting cargo of this nature from the Philippines and Indonesia, and sometimes other Asian countries, are “cowboy” operations, not satisfying even those legal requirements.
Industry sources have another complaint: when such losses take place, underwriters are only too willing to reimburse such “cowboy” operators. Meanwhile, lives continue to be lost.
Rob Lomas, the Secretary General of Intercargo, said a few weeks ago that “We know that all ship owners of quality care about the safety of their seafarers and what has occurred in the last 39 days is completely unacceptable.” The operative words in Mr. Lomas’ statement are “ship owners of quality”. The problem is that particularly in Asian bulk trades, there are quite a few who are not “of quality”. The problem is by no means confined to dry bulk operations, but can be found, as evidence in the loss statistics, in virtually every sector of Asian sea transport. This is not to say that Asian shipping as whole is substandard. Very far from it; however, shipping is, as we are fond of saying over and over again, a global industry. It cannot be compartmentalized. When the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) was founded after the Second World War, it was recognized that an international agency was needed to regulate an international business. It is time for the IMO, which is now in the process of implementing a mandatory (repeat: mandatory) audit scheme for flag states, and similar codes for vessel classification, together with the International Safety Management (ISM) Code, which is Chapter IX of SOLAS, to aggressively pursue flag states and port states that collude in flagrant violations of international law that cost the lives of seafarers. This means cracking down on port states and flag states that openly countenance such violations, if, indeed, such violations exist (by the way, they do).
And, while we once again celebrate the fact that “shipping is an international industry”, would it be too much to ask our industry’s global spokesmen – they of the “round table”, “one voice”, and so forth — to step forward and take a stand for a full investigation? After all, they generally have spoken out on piracy and criminalisation. Calling for a full investigation of the facts behind these sinkings, and deaths, couldn’t be as risky as all that. Think what it would do for the image of shipping!
And, once again, when rulebreakers are rewarded – as, for example, when P&I cover is extended to ships that may be without classification, and even without valid registration – such practices make the actions of Somali pirates look in comparison like the rule of law.
In addition to reminding the world that we are a truly international business, we have also made the most of this year’s proclaimed status as the Year of the Seafarer. Well, 2010 only has another two weeks or so; wouldn’t it be nice to put those two weeks to good use, and turn away, just for the moment, from outpourings on emissions and piracy, not to mention the growing shortage of qualified crew, to investigate how it is that three bulkers carrying the same cargo, loaded in the same country, operated and manned by nationals of the same country, under the same state of registry, came to sink with heavy loss of life in approximately the same region, bound for port in the same country?