With less than a month to go before a new international ocean-container weighing regulation takes effect, fewer than 15 percent of the 162 nations responsible for enforcing the rule have issued guidelines on how their supply chains should implement it, according to a non-governmental organization (NGO) that specializes in global cargo handling.
The estimate, which was reported at a seminar held last week in Antwerp by the organization ICHCA, complicates matters for the world's importers, including the large number of U.S. retailers that are heavy buyers of overseas goods shipped by sea. The regulation, embedded as an amendment to the Safety of Lives at Sea (SOLAS) treaty administered by the London-based International Maritime Organization (IMO), requires shippers and freight forwarders to certify each packed container's gross mass, which includes the cargo, other contents such as dunnage, and the tare weight of the box, to ocean carriers before the container will be boarded. The amendment takes effect July 1.
Much of the focus of the amendment's potential impact has been on exporters, because the requirement directly impacts the lading of the vessel. However, importers could also be affected because the language has the force of law in all IMO-signatory nations, which include the main U.S. trading partners.
Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation (NRF), an influential trade group representing the retail industry, said the current situation creates a "problematic" scenario for his members, many of whom are the owners of the cargo being shipped. In a phone interview today, Gold expressed concern the amendment will be enforced unevenly across carriers and governments. This will cause confusion among U.S. businesses that import from multiple countries because the policies could easily differ from one country to the next, he said.
Gold added that U.S. retailers are not receiving clear and consistent communication from carriers on such issues as the IT platform deemed acceptable for receiving the data and the cut-off times for data to be received in order for the box to be laden.
A late-May IMO directive called on governments to be "practical and pragmatic" in enforcing the provision, especially during the first 90 days. The organization said possible technical glitches in the communication and sharing of container-weight information warrant some level of governmental latitude. It added that the 90-day window should minimize the chance a container vetted at its origin port before July 1 would be inspected again if it needs to be transshipped after that date from another port.
Gold said the settling-in period would be of little help to its members, noting several carriers have already said they will not accept containers on July 1 that aren't accompanied by certification of their accurate "verified gross mass."
Despite concerns about potential service disruptions, Gold said that, to his knowledge, no NRF member has brought cargo into the U.S. any earlier than planned.
Speaking before the ICHCA seminar, Mike Yarwood, claims manager for TT Club Mutual Insurance Ltd., a London-based freight insurance concern, said the IMO directive is welcome news to those already preparing for the July 1 start date. However, it should not be considered a "panacea for the unprepared," Yarwood added.
IMO is advising "sympathetic enforcement of the language" by governments for a limited time to account for cargo already in the supply chain, and to allow for growing pains as stakeholders adjust to the rule, Yarwood said. Any short-term leniency "in no way steps away from the safety objectives" of the amendment, he said.
IMO has said there will be no extension of the amendment's July 1 deadline. The amendment was adopted in 2014 after being aggressively pushed by containership lines worried that illegally overweight containers could cause damage to the vessel, or possibly lead to it sinking.
The U.S. Coast Guard, the government entity enforcing the rule in the U.S., has called for a flexible, multi-stakeholder approach to comply with the provision. There has been no shortage of announcements in recent weeks from various IT firms promoting their agreements with various stakeholders to be the technology conduits for VGM communications.