Cooking The Books 2: The nature of business
Remember the scenes in January last year when hundreds flocked to Branscombe beach in Devon to scavenge for the cargo of a beached container ship? Some saw this as confirmation of the popular prejudice that it is “human nature” to grab, grab, grab. Actually, it was a manifestation of human behaviour in a society where normally everything has to be paid for when something becomes unexpectedly and temporarily available for free.
But that’s not the main lesson of the incident. This April the Marine Accident Investment Branch (MAIB) of the Department for Transport published its report on what happened (www.maib.dft.gov.uk/publications/investigation_reports/2008/msc_napoli.cfm). The report didn’t just deal with the technical aspects of why the hull cracked and why the ship had to be beached to avoid a serious oil spillage but looked at the wider context too.
In section 2.10 on the “Container Ship Industry”, the MIAB observed:
“Without the ability to quickly ship large quantities of containers across the oceans, containerisation would be generally constrained within the continents. However, the commercial advantages of containerisation and intermodalism such as speed and quick turnarounds appear to have become the focus of the industry at the expense of the safe operation of its vessels. The industry is very schedule driven, and operators inevitably have an eye on the timetable when making key decisions”.
On the particular accident last January, the report went on:
“In this case, the decisions to sail: without an operational governor; sail in excess of the maximum permissible seagoing bending moments in order to allow greater flexibility for the time of departure; to operate at near maximum bending moments when underway; and to keep the ship’s speed as fast as possible when pounding into heavy seas, were symptomatic of the industry’s ethos to carry as much as possible as quickly as possible”.
This wasn’t the first time the MAIB had pointed this out. The report quotes from a previous report put out in September 2007 on another accident:
“Working practices relating to the planning, loading, transportation and discharge of containers are largely unregulated and have been understandably focussed on the need to maximise efficiency and speed of operation. While key industry players will attest that safety is of paramount concern, evidence obtained during this and other MAIB investigations into container shipping accidents suggests that in reality, the safety of ships, crews and the environment is being compromised by the overriding desire to maintain established schedules or optimise port turn round times”.
Something will no doubt be done to tighten up the regulations – or rather the unenforceable “code of best practice” – if only because accidents cost the shipping companies money. But the real question is why weren’t proper safety measures already in place? The answer is the commercial pressures that all firms are subject to under capitalism. The shipping companies are all in competition with each other for business, and those who can deliver quicker get the contracts.
It is not human nature to grab, grab, grab, but it is the nature of capitalist businesses to take risks and cut corners with safety to win the battle of competition and make more profits.