© Olga Kurbatova

Container carriers are dealing with widespread weight mis-declarations by shippers, refuelling long-standing ship safety hazard issues.

The modified Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) verified gross mass (VGM) rule was enforced in 2016 to address the problem of overweight containers, which typically causes vessel stability concerns and accidents at sea.

Sunil Vaswani, executive director of the Container Shipping Lines Association (CSLA), voiced concerns and said the problem had “very serious consequences” for the industry.

He explained that the SOLAS regulatory framework requires every container to have a VGM certification before it is allowed to be loaded onto a ship, and told The Loadstar: “However, there are instances where exporters continue to mis-declare weights.

“For [these] erroneous cases, carriers are well within their rights to withhold the loading of such boxes and penalise the exporter, along with sending reports to the Directorate General of Shipping.” 

CMA CGM has told its customers container weight discrepancies had soared to “unacceptable levels”, with the potential to put supply chain flows at considerable risk.

“We have found the weight indicated in the VGM and bill of lading does not align with the actual weight, measured on the weighing scales at transhipment points,” the French liner told Indian shippers.

“It is imperative to understand that mis-declared weight shipments, in addition to being a safety hazard, necessitate extensive reworking procedures with the customs and regulatory requirements of the transhipment country, which can lead to substantial delays, potentially extending transit times by several weeks.” 

The carrier also warned of significant cost consequences to customers, in the form of customs penalties and detention and demurrage charges, for non-compliance.

“CMA CGM will not be responsible [for the extra cost implications],” it told them.

An executive at a major European carrier said serious mismatches between documentation and actual box weight were frequently reported by vessel operators.

“There is little scrutiny of VGM accuracy at the stakeholder level, after making the shipper responsible for providing the container weight in line with SOLAS,” the source said. 

And an official at a Singapore-based carrier told The Loadstar: “The reality is it has not been rigorously enforced.” 

According to some freight forwarder sources, VGM manipulation is rampant at most ports, using manual declarations without effectively weighing cargo instead of submitting VGM data through the ODex platform. ODex is a provider of export-import shipping documentation services for carriers.

One forwarder said: “Customs house agents often adopt this modus operandi for last-minute cargo moves, with trucks showing up at the gate closure or cut-off time declared for loading containers onto the ship. This frantic activity helps them bypass the proper VGM eye – and this can’t happen without all playing a role.”

SOLAS non-compliance is an industry-wide menace, say carriers, which needs swift stakeholder intervention, but the SOLAS rule had its share of controversy in its initial roll-out stages, when shippers resisted attempts by container terminals across the globe to collect additional fees for VGM services.

Meanwhile, CMA CGM has announced a new surcharge on overweight shipments from the Middle East to North Europe, Scandinavia, Poland, the Baltic, the East/West Mediterranean, the Adriatic, North Africa and Morocco.  From 15 November, dry cargo loads weighing over 14 tons will attract a tariff of $50 per teu, it said.

You can contact the writer at [email protected].

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  • Mike Kirkman

    November 03, 2023 at 8:51 am

    The easiest way to resolve the non-compliance weighing issue is earlier in the supply chain process at the packing point with portable, Bison container scales.

  • Matthew Gore

    November 06, 2023 at 2:42 pm

    Disappointing to hear this on such an important safety issue for the industry. We advised widely on the implementation of this back in 2015-6 but sadly it comes down to the relevant authorities having the funding and resources to effectively ‘police’ compliance and/or for carriers and terminal operators to take a tougher stance. In the current market environment this may not be a popular option.