Maritime commerce has many conflicting parties whose self-interest leads to unfair practices. They include governmental and industrial shippers, shipowners, bankers, brokers, forwarders, port labour and merchant marines. Others having important roles are: governmental and intergovernmental regulatory or investigatory bodies; conference line shipowners; owner consortia; vertically integrated transnational corporations who may control production and inland as well as maritime transport up to the end markets; and dockers and seafarers unions. Shippers, shipowners and union interests are too often competitively opposed to each other, and competition within the shippers and shipowners industries itself are the factors that can lead to unfair business practices.
Shipping conferences, 'rate agreements', 'freight agreements' and 'freight associations', groups of shipping lines operating on routes with basic agreements for charging uniform rates, for allocating routes, berthing and sailing rights, and for pooling cargo and revenues, and intended to shut out non-conference competition, are among the earliest cartels in international trade. A particular feature of shipping conferences is the power which they exercise in regulating the conditions under which liner services can operate in a particular trade. They make unilateral decisions which vitally affect the interests of users of shipping services, and hence the national or public interest of the countries whose trades they serve. From the earliest days they have caused considerable discontent on the part of shippers, who complain that the monopoly power of these conferences has led to abuse, and that they require regulation in the public interest.