Asian shippers are intensifying their attack on what they perceive as high and unfair terminal handling charges, which, in some ports, are already the largest in the world.
A meeting of the Federation of Asean Shippers Councils in Singapore supported calls for some legal mechanism to require lines to consult before increasing freight rates and surcharges.Shipping lines commonly argue that such increases are imposed merely to recover losses from earlier times, in this era of declining freight rates. They say terminal handling charges are meant to offset higher costs.
Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is a trade bloc comprising Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Shipper groups from other regional points attend meetings as associates or observers.
Vicharn Nivatvongs, president of the federation, said rate increases should be transparent and justified.
''But because of the monopolistic power held by the carriers, it seems like they give you an ultimatum - take it or leave it. And now we have to take it because we need the containers,'' he said.
The regional economic upheavals of the last year have fueled a boom in exports while stunting imports. This has spurred a huge - and expensive - imbalance of containers.
Mr. Nivatvongs said terminal-handling charges are a severe burden on shippers because of lack of transparency and because they were increased in some markets where there was no corresponding increase in terminal tariffs.
''The meeting concluded that shipping cartels are now adopting the practice of increasing THCs (terminal handling charges) as an additional source of revenue to the detriment of shippers,'' he said.
Clement Yeung, executive director of the Hong Kong Shippers Council, said shippers frequently learn of rate increases from newspapers and are not given time to adjust.
''Asian shippers are already working with very thin margins. In Hong Kong, we would like at least three months' notice,'' he said, a point he has made repeatedly over recent years.
Kerk Choo Ting, Malaysia's deputy trade and industry minister, said terminal handling charges have been raised unilaterally too many times, and that some countries, including Australia, have legislation in place to compel lines to consult before imposing new rates.
With such discussions, shippers would be given reasons for rate increases and be able to plan strategies, said Mr. Kerk, who is also Malaysian National Shippers Council chairman.
Mr. Nivatvongs said any legal mechanism would be a last resort to make the trade fairer to consumers.
The Thai Commerce Ministry last month rejected a proposal by its shippers council to control terminal-handling charges by foreign-run lines, fearing a negative impact on exporters.
Controls could cause international lines to bar feeders from loading cargoes at Thai ports, said Suchai Jaovisidha, director-general of the Internal Trade Department. They might choose instead to use Singapore as a transshipment point, he said.
The shippers had appealed to the ministry to add terminal charges to the list of prices controlled by the Price Fixing and Anti-Monopoly Committee.
Malaysia, which has invested heavily to make its ports more attractive, said previously it is studying ways to cut costs and improve efficiency to attract more lines.
Among the options weighed are combining terminal-handling charges with freight charges or controlling terminal-handling charges through legislation, Mr. Kerk said.
Doing so would set Malaysia apart from Hong Kong and some others, where the call is for clear explanations of what charges are made for what.
The Singapore National Shippers Council wants groups to band together to fight freight rate and other charges.
''This is an international problem,'' Chairman John Lu told Singapore's Shipping Times in a recent interview. ''If we tackle an international problem at a national level, we will not succeed.''
In addition to Hong Kong, other associate members at the session were Sri Lanka, Australia and South Korea. There were observers from Japan, Macau and Canada.
Malaysia was elected chair of a freight committee charged with collecting freight data. Malaysia will host next year's federation meeting.