Shipping is not having a ‘Weinstein moment’, but maybe it should

With the debate raging about the conduct of those in high office and positions of power and how to hold them to account, it seems we are in autumn of discontent. And rightly so.

Accusations of personal misconduct, the abuse of authority and the ability of the rich to avoid tax have combined with the mood of opposition that drove the Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s election and the growth of popular discontent across Europe.

There may be little direct comparison between the harm experienced by victims of abuse and the ability of elites to legally circumvent national laws, but the confluence of these events has created a palpable feeling that a genie is out of the bottle.

I would contend that something similar is happening in shipping, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the IMO process of agreeing a consensus on how shipping should pay for carbon has descended from gentlemanly disagreement to internet trolling.

Second, the bunker market, for so long a redoubt of questionable practices and poor product quality, is under intense pressure to clean up its game.

Lastly, the industry seems to finally have accepted that abandoning crew, unpaid and alone in foreign ports is not just an issue for welfare charities, but rather casts a shadow that is at least as long as any positive messages it can convey .

It was interesting to hear a colleague remark of allegations that industry lobbyists had ‘taken control’ of the IMO process in the same terms as the accusations swirling through film and theatre; ‘everybody knew, nobody said anything’.

The alleged evidence, released by InfluenceMap suggested that the IMO committee process has essentially been hijacked by corporate interests (read: shipowners), using national delegations to lobby against stricter targets for carbon reduction.

The response was the sort of outrage that simply makes the cynical believe there must be something to the rumours. Salvos back and forth, through the press, social media, official announcements and everything in between, have resulted in the whole business setting tongues a-wagging.

This is despite – or perhaps because of – the industry declaring itself satisfied with the outcome of the IMO intercessional meeting around which this melee centred. Also perhaps because the European Commission agreed to give shipping a pass on inclusion on the emissions trading system, though this had been widely expected.

One particularly passionate outburst carried in the trade press resulted in a Twitter account – ownership unconfirmed – trolling the author until he was forced to resign from a teaching post. His crime? For laying bare his own experience at IMO of when industry lobbying removed the teeth from regulation he was backing on safety grounds.

The author’s general point was that we should stop deluding ourselves about why people are in shipping and accept that decisions are made principally for financial reasons. Nobody is in this for the good of their health or that of the planet and to suggest otherwise is simply deceitful.

And what of the issues that have dogged the bunker market for years? Quality, quantity, reliability, veracity; all have been a problem for owners, yet as consumers they have seemed to accept a string of poor practices part of the process.

This seems to be coming to an end. Greater use of mass flow meters will make simple cheating on deliveries harder. The IMO 2020 sulfur cap will to a large extent remove the problems associated with heavy fuel oil quality because few owners will be consuming it.

Higher quality low sulfur material will be the fuel of choice, though to begin with, owners and associations are concerned that the rush to meet demand could result in some unstable blends hitting the market.

In practical terms, the higher costs of buying, storing and supplying the fuel could mean that small operators find it hard to maintain their positions and cede business to bigger concerns. That could be a shame for good family concerns, good if it forces bad actors out of the market.

On a corporate basis, greater pursuit and punishment of offenders and the removal of licences from fraudulent operators suggest that courts and regulators are more prepared to act where in the past they might not. One only need read the trade news headlines to see numerous current and former operators being called to account.

So lastly, to the problem of crew abandonment, a subject much on the mind of some editors and industry observers, all the more so since the offshore supply vessel market shows no signs of improving anytime soon. It is a sad fact that shipping will always attract some operators for whom the financial imperatives noted above do not translate into a long term commitment to their market or the professionals they employ.

While this remains within the industry’s ‘four walls’, it could be seen as the usual rough and tumble of the markets, however wrongheaded an assumption. When it appears on local and national news (as it has in the UK in recent weeks) it is a shameful reflection of how irresponsible some operators are prepared to be.

Few people could have lately watched the footage about the crew of an OSV abandoned in Aberdeen to wonder what more they could have done; some giving up and going home unpaid, others prepared to stick it out until the vessel was sold, in hopes they would be in line for some compensation.

When the editor of one trade publication has to write to the industry’s leading shipmanagers and suggest to them that working with these owners should be off the table – and the majority reply in the affirmative – one senses that the Rubicon has been crossed.

It would have been even better had every major industry association immediately lept on this initiative and backed it to the hilt, but it could be that there is too much to lose to make very strong comments in public.

Of course, there are other issues for the industry to confront, many of them far more problematic than where rich people hide their money, why countries act the way they do in support of their national interest and whether trust or fairness can ever truly exist in business.

On balance, shipping is nowhere near a ‘Weinstein moment’ in which a the drip-drip of complaint turns into a torrent and the ability to avoid the news becomes impossible.

Perhaps though the timing is right, in the sense that, with many analysts broadly optimistic about a return to better earnings, we could be seeing the start of a new era for shipping, its suppliers, employees and stakeholders. Perhaps it would be wise not to hold one’s breath here, but a bigger dose of this sort of transparency would certainly be a good place to start.

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