In a statement on Friday afternoon (23 August), the ACCC said that a charge of criminal cartel conduct was formally laid against the company by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecution.
It relates to allegations of cartel conduct in the international shipping of some vehicles to Australia, between June 2011 and July 2012.
The ACCC said the matter is scheduled for an initial hearing in the NSW District Registry of the Federal Court on 29 August 2019.
“This is the third prosecution involving an international shipping company engaging in alleged cartel conduct where criminal charges have been laid under the Competition and Consumer Act,” ACCC chair Rod Sims said.
While the matter is before the court, the ACCC said it would not comment any further on the matter.
According to its website, WWO has an Australian office and shipping terminal in Melbourne as well processing centres in Brisbane, Perth and Wollongong’s Port Kembla. It also lists over a dozen operations and agents around the country.
Responding to the announcement, WWO issued a statement in which it expressed “regret” at the situation, but said that it is “co-operating" with the competition watchdog.
“In July 2015, the ACCC (the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission), started an investigation into alleged anti-competitive practices in the car carrying industry during 2009-2012. Wallenius Wilhelmsen Ocean has been cooperating fully with the ACCC, and the matter has now been referred to the Federal court,” it said.
“The charges relate to alleged cartel conduct concerning the international shipping of certain vehicles to Australia between June 2011 and July 2012. What has been announced by ACCC today is the first step in the formal legal proceedings, starting with an indictment and the company being asked to appear in court.
“Whilst we regret that it has come to this, we are happy to see this matter now proceeding formally. The company is cooperating with the ACCC in this investigation and will continue to work with the normal processes of the court to bring this to a conclusion.”
Previous charges resulted in multimillion-dollar penalties
This marks the third prosecution of a global shipping company in relation to the alleged cartel.
Two years ago, the ACCC announced that it had secured the second-highest ever penalty issued for a case it prosecuted, with Japanese shipping company Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (NYK) fined $25 million.
In that instance, the company had been found guilty of being part of a cartel on the transporting of motor vehicles to Australia from between 2009 and 2012.
“The Australian community relies heavily on imported vehicles, so a longstanding cartel in relation to the transportation of those vehicles to Australia was of significant concern,” ACCC chair Rod Sims said at the time.
That, however, was eclipsed by the $34.5 million penalty issued earlier this month against fellow Japanese shipping company Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd (K-Line).
It had pleaded guilty in April 2018 to having been involved in fixing prices on a range of cars, trucks and buses to Australia between 2009 and 2012.
This month, the ACCC said it was “the largest ever criminal fine imposed under the Competition and Consumer Act”. But it still dwarfed the maximum penalty of $100 million that K-Line had faced, with the penalty discounted for an early guilty plea as well as the company’s co-operation.