Editorial comment – Vital inter-island link

Consumer Council of Fiji CEO Premila Kumar. Picture: FT FILE

THE revelation that the Consumer Council of Fiji has zoomed in on inter-island shipping operators over customer service policies is interesting.

The council’s chief executive officer Premila Kumar insists that disregard for the safety and comfort of passengers on inter-island shipping vessels needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

The council, she said, received numerous complaints on a yearly basis, and for this year alone since January it had recorded 17 complaints against shipping companies and labelled the complaints as “systematic in nature”.

She said complaints against shipping companies showed the same recurring issues from overloading of vessels to instances of missing and damaged cargo, cancellation and delay of trips/schedules without notice. In such cases, she said, consumers incur costs and this could continue to happen since there was no formal legislated system to provide any form of compensation for aggrieved consumers.

Since consumers pay “good” money for their services, she said, the inter-island shipping travel system needs to be overhauled to make them accountable.

With shipping companies having invested heavily in boosting their fleet size to make inter-island travel easier, she said, it seemed customer service policies were still lacking.

Separated by waters of the Pacific Ocean, inter-island shipping services are a key part of the lives of people who travel from our many islands scattered in the Lau Group, Lomaiviti and the Yasawas. Then there are the services between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.

Any bid to improve services will be welcomed, especially when one takes into account the fact that people have taken to crossing our waters on open fibreglass boats.

Many continue to brave the elements in the face of irregular shipping services. This has, however, had its associated dangers, with a number of boats capsizing in rough seas and people going missing.

As much as they will want to adhere to safety requirements, the bottom line is, time becomes a very important factor for many people. The onus is on our shipping industry to address shortfalls and to put in place a timetable that is regular and workable for all stakeholders.

There is heightened expectation that services can be improved.

As much as we will want to encourage industry stakeholders to improve their fleets, there will obviously be a call for legislation to tighten up safety issues generally, and for the State to put together more incentives and perhaps revisit the franchise scheme.

Shipping companies that take the initiative to improve their fleet deserve acknowledgement.

There are some companies that are meeting very high standards. They have scheduled trips that are consistent, and adhere to safety standards and cleanliness on board their vessels.

One wonders though whether this business is lucrative enough for them to stay and continue to upgrade their fleets.

It isn’t difficult to see that because of the geographical make-up of our islands and distances that have to be travelled, there is a need for a service that meets the needs of travellers.

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