Lloyd’s List – A sad game of exploitation on Bangladesh’s beaches

(Opinion piece by NGO Shipbreaking Platform’s Acting Director Grazia Cioci)

9 February 2011 – The NGO Platform on Shipbreaking stands by its commitment to seeing the Basel Convention enforced

Platform on Shipbreaking appreciates the chance to respond to the unfounded accusations made by International Maritime Organization senior implementation officer Nikos Mikelis (‘IMO lashes back at “totally inaccurate” Bangladesh letter’, Lloyd’s List, January 31), concerning a letter sent by the platform to the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina this January 27.

Nikos Mikelis accuses the platform of sending a “totally inaccurate” letter to the Bangladesh Prime Minister, implying that the IMO is investing money into the country’s ship recycling industry. But he appears to be splitting hairs with his admission that it is rather the Norwegian government that is offering the funds and “IMO is offering guidance to the Norwegian government, which through the Norwegian Agency for Development Co-operation is planning to donate between $5m-$6m to the Bangladeshi government”.

Infact, the IMO itself reported in a press release last November 3 that Norad had signed an agreement to contribute $3m to the IMO’s Integrated Technical Cooperation Programme focusing on developing countries’ abilities to implement IMO standards.

It is immaterial whether Norway is offering the funding guided by IMO or through the IMO budget. The intent is the same: to influence, through the dangling of serious dollars, the Bangladesh government at a moment when the Bangladesh high courts have had the audacity to enforce Bangladesh’s international obligations under the Basel Convention.

The Basel Convention does not allow a free trade in hazardous wastes, whether or not they come in the form of a ship with a hazardous waste cargo, or a waste ship made of hazardous materials.

We blew the whistle on this suspicious payment at this suspicious time when the shipowners are wailing that they cannot get rid of their old ships anymore. We warned that unless this sudden generosity pays for legitimate reform of the industry, by funding its movement into controlled dock operations, then this funding is little more than a bribe to Bangladesh to ignore the law.

The stridency of Dr Mikelis’ response indicates his raw nerves on the subject. Clearly, reputations are at stake over the blatant failure of the IMO Ship Recycling Convention to set a safe or clean standard for a shipbreaking industry. Rather the IMO convention is intended to maintain business as usual for a business that steers over 80% of the global end-of-life tonnage onto the beaches of developing countries.

Norway, whose shipowners get top dollar from the Bangladesh shipbreakers for toxic-laden end-of-life ships, took a lead during the negotiations for the convention in opposing more costly measures to truly reform the scandalous conditions by moving the shipbreaking off the beaches to safer and more controlled conditions.

In his comments to Lloyd’s List, Dr Mikelis never discusses moving the operations off the beaches to finally prevent gross contamination and deforestation of the mangrove ecosystem, allow for cranes to operate on a stable platform and access by emergency response equipment. Rather, Dr Mikelis talks about only improving the waste disposal facilities in the country, a step that would more ably allow Bangladesh to continue to serve as a convenient dumping ground for the western world’s waste.

Most shocking is Dr Mikelis’ admission that he has absolutely no regard for the Basel Convention when he states: “They talk about pre-cleaned vessels but I have argued repeatedly that precleaning would make it impossible to sail a ship to the ship recycling country because it would mean no cables, no insulation, no fuel etc. You would have to tow it—and how can you tow a ship from Europe to Asia?”

The Basel Convention has obliged countries to minimise the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes generally and has passed a decision against dumping such wastes on developing countries. His insistence on using Asia as a dumping ground for wastes is shocking as it is tantamount to one United Nations agency (IMO) arguing for undermining the international law and principles established under another United Nations body (United Nations Environment Programme).

Dr Mikelis fails to acknowledge that precleaning of ships of hazardous wastes going from OECD to non-OECD countries is a requirement under the Basel Convention and its decisions, which have also been ratified by the European Union in its Waste Shipment Regulation.

He also seems unaware of the existence of ocean going tugs. It is possible to tow a vessel from Europe to Asia, if there were the will to invest in such an operation. The oil company Total completely decontaminated its barge Serepca1 before towing it to China.

It may cost a little more to do it that way, but that is the price of not dumping your problems on others. The shipping industry led by Norway and the IMO is unwilling to responsibly internalise its cost, but is happier to victimise and exploit developing countries and their desperate labour forces. The platform asks the IMO and Norway: why do you fail to support the environmental laws of Bangladesh and the United Nations Basel Convention? Why do you continue to promote a practice that is not allowed anywhere else in the western world and that would not even be allowed in South Asia if the countries’ environmental and labour laws were finally implemented?

When will Norway throw ships up on its beaches and allow workers to be blown to bits, crushed and poisoned by impossible working conditions?

Any investment in the shipbreaking industry should be used to get the practice off the beach and properly enforce the Basel Convention to ensure that developing countries are not used as dumping grounds of the rich, and that the workers in developing countries are given a fighting chance to survive their jobs. Anything less is a sad game of exploitation.

Read the letter sent to the Bangladesh Prime Minister on 27 January 2011