Friday, July 04, 2008

Hurting Ourselves

Who would have thought that, at the height of the fury against the company, Sulpicio Lines, Inc. would have the temerity to sue the weather bureau? That, it seems, is merely par for the course. Just a few days prior to their daring legal manuever, Sulpicio had hinted that they might sue God Himself for the disaster -- it being an Act of God -- and that, perhaps, might have come to pass if not for the immediate vehement admonition of certain bishops.

Though the strategy smacks of insanity and desperation, there is some method to the madness. The tactic is dilatory, and in the Philippine legal system, justice usually boils down to a war of attrition. Whoever lasts longer wins.

Consider that Sulpicio Lines holds the highest death toll of any shipping line in the world -- more than 5,300 people -- but continues to operate since its first and biggest disaster, the MV Doña Paz, in 1987. Perhaps in any other place, the MV Doña Paz incident -- 4,375 dead -- would have sunk its owners, but no, not Sulpicio Lines, which continued to sail strong after the inquiry exonerated it despite its massive overloading. Two more disasters followed: MV Doña Marilyn (around 250 dead), MV Princess of the Orient (around 150 dead). And now, of course, the MV Princess of the Stars (around 800 dead).

We may be quick to blame Sulpicio Lines for the disasters, but surely, equal blame goes to those who permit the shipping line to operate.

Immediately after the most recent incident, the instinctive reaction was to shut down Sulpicio Lines. But wait a minute! Sulpicio runs roughly forty percent of inter-island transport operations. Shutting down the company would adversely affect the economic flow of the country. And so, by executive fiat, Sulpicio's cargo ships sail once more; how much longer until passenger demand becomes so irresistible such that human traffic becomes permissible again?

Even if Sulpicio never ferries a passenger again, haven't we learned from the environmental disaster that we just narrowly missed with the MV Princess of the Stars? The MV Princess of the Stars was carrying 10 metric tons of highly toxic pesticide which could have contaminated not only our waters but outside as well. Fortunately there wasn't (and doubly so, because endosulfan is both a neurotoxin and an endocrine disruptor). By allowing Sulpicio to sail its ships again, we are merely playing Russian roulette.

Consider, too, how a company like Sulpicio can manage to hold the country's economy hostage. Forty percent of maritime traffic is quite substantial: are there no other sea freight lines that can fill in the vacuum? Apparently not.

In situations like these, the measures are often merely punitive rather than remedial. We can punish Sulpicio but only until it begins to hurt us. For all intents and purposes, Sulpicio is untouchable. Why is this so? Because the shipping industry in the Philippines is effectively a cartel. There are only a handful of shipping lines that operate in the country, surprising considering how vital it is to an archipelagic country. There is no competition, there is no flexibility, and correspondingly transport prices are high.

One way to begin to remedy this problem is to build more ports or expand existing ones. More facilities means more space for competition. However, as we have seen in recent and not-so-recent events in Dumaguete, this is all but impossible to achieve. Ports are subject to local politics, and often go the route of the status quo.

The status quo is the cartel, and the cartel permits Sulpicio to keep right on sailing.