Shipping lines fight sanctions over cargo dispute

The United States should immediately withdraw its proposal for sanctions against three Japanese shipping lines because the firms are not responsible for cargo handlers at Japan’s ports, the head of the Japanese Shipowners’ Association said Jan. 22.”Japanese shipping lines have no responsibility in the issue,” Isao Shintani, president of the association, told The Japan Times in an interview. “We are seriously concerned that imposing sanctions for false reasons may create trouble in future trade relations between Japan and the U.S.”Complaining about Japan’s practice of holding “prior consultations” between shipping companies and the labor unions of cargo handling companies when selecting a cargo handler, the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission in November proposed slapping a punitive duty of $100,000 per voyage on Japanese freighters that enter U.S. ports. The three shipping lines are Nippon Yusen K.K., Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. and Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd.Under the disputed long-standing practice, whenever container freighters running international routes dock at Japanese ports, shipping companies and the cargo handlers’ labor unions choose a handler by consulting with each other via the Japan Harbor Transportation Association, an industry body. Talks are also required for any scheduling changes, and shipping companies in the U.S. and Europe have often complained because the process is inefficient for cargo handling at ports and curtails their freedom to select cargo handlers.”Japanese shipping firms are not enjoying any advantage over foreign shipping lines. We pay the same amount of costs as foreign shipping companies for cargo handling in Japan,” said Shintani, who is also president of Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha. He added that imposing the sanctions is wrong.But Shintani admitted at the same time that various operations at Japanese ports, including cargo handling, need improvement. “No ports, including foreign ones, have 100 percent transparency,” he said. The “prior consultation” practice, which started in 1979 as a labor and management agreement, was started to secure employment for cargo handlers as container freighters requiring less port workers came into use. Japan has often been criticized for the high cost of handling cargo and for its various port fees, including “wharfage” fees for using wharves. Due to those costs, foreign shipping lines have recently started to look away from Japanese ports, according to officials of the shipowners’ association. Singapore, Hong Kong and Pusan, South Korea, are now attracting more foreign ships as regional hub ports.