Agriculture exporters praise FMC
U.S. agriculture exporters are praising a Federal Maritime Commission fact-finding investigation into vessel and container capacity, and recent initiatives by the agency that it says will help exporters.
Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition (AgTC), said there has been a 'turn in attitude, a sea change in view of the purpose of the FMC. It has been highly constructive.'
In the past, Friedmann said he and others did not view the FMC as 'an entity trying to facilitate exports. To the extent that they are now, that is a welcome development.' He praised comments from FMC Chairman Richard Lidinsky that he will work to assure sufficient capacity for agriculture exports.
'The people who have been most involved in moving the legislative and regulatory process forward, that is the agricultural exporters, are very supportive of what the FMC is doing,' he added.
Friedmann noted AgTC members testified before Congress in hearings that eventually led to the introduction of a bill by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., to eliminate antitrust immunity for liner carriers and give additional powers to the FMC. Group members also participated in the FMC capacity investigation, and in face-to-face discussions with ocean carriers initiated by the FMC this summer.
AgTC's praise for the FMC probe contrasted with criticisms leveled by the National Industrial Transportation League, which expressed disappointment in the limited amount of information the FMC has released about the fact-finding investigation, and what it said was a suggestion by the FMC that 'the solution to the problems experienced by U.S. exporters and importers be developed through collaboration between ocean carriers and their customers with the FMC taking on the unconventional role of a commercial facilitator.'
• FMC urges shipper-carrier collaboration
• NIT League calls FMC report 'disappointment'
• Dye: Capacity study 'focused on solutions'
The NIT League suggested it might seek more information about the FMC investigation through a Freedom of Information Act filing, 'with all appropriate redactions to protect the identities of those interviewed.'
Friedmann said the decision by FMC Commissioner Rebecca Dye to interview shippers confidentially during the fact-finding investigation 'provided an environment in which they could get real information and real experiences from shippers and forwarders who otherwise would not have come forward.' He added, 'exposing that information or those individuals who testified would be not only a tremendous breach of faith but I am not sure legally they could do so.'
Another group, the Pacific Coast Council of Customs Brokers and Freight Forwarders, also issued a statement applauding the actions of the FMC, saying many of its members had participated in the fact-finding investigation and said the FMC had been 'true to its word to keep these interviews with forwarders and shippers confidential; had it not made that commitment, many forwarders and shippers would not have come forward, and the Commission would not have the information it needed in order to initiate solutions to their concerns.'
Friedmann said he was pleased with actions taken by the FMC as a result of the fact-finding investigation.
These include the creation of so-called 'rapid response teams' to mediate disputes between shippers and carriers.
'Those are not to be underestimated, they are precisely what many shippers need, and what in fact agriculture exporters are utilizing right now,' he said. He said they are designed by the FMC to help in 'the real process of ocean shipping, when there are hiccups in the process which are undermining agricultural exports.
'For example, if accurate and timely bills of lading cannot be obtained before a letter of credit expires, major agricultural exports cannot be made, sales fall through. The FMC has committed resources to addressing that very real problem.
Friedmann also praised the FMC's decision to form 'working groups' to address issues such as service contracts and container availability.
He said the FMC said it would initiate the service contract review after its investigation found 'smaller shippers could use some assistance in understanding ocean transportation contracts and in gaining provisions that were fair. I think that there was a sense ' that smaller shippers, in particular, do not have the negotiating leverage to get provisions that many would say would be reasonable.'
Friedmann noted that six agriculture exporters participated in face-to-face meetings arranged by the FMC with six senior carriers executives this summer.
He felt these were 'very constructive' and said 'this hasn't happened before and again it is a change in the commission's view of what it can do to facilitate commerce in a non-adversarial way.'
Will meetings like this have a long-term benefit on large numbers of shippers?
'Time will tell,' he said. 'The FMC has been around since 1961, and we are three months into the FMC taking a different approach which is open and welcoming to exporters and importers.' ' Chris Dupin