(Written by Girija Shettar)
7 November 2014 - The practice of inviting media and stakeholders to view “model” shipbreaking yards in India and Bangladesh has been criticised by ship recycling activists.
NGO Shipbreaking Platform’s executive director, Patrizia Heidegger, spoke to IHS Maritime today on returning from a trip to the region. She said that in India and Bangladesh, visitors are invited to see shipbreaking yards that are specially set up for visitors and that are not reflective of the larger reality.
She said: “It will always be the same yard where they take every single delegation who visits. It is not really a model yard, but a better yard. It is a space that is more cleaned up, where they have installed more technology, which is kind of neat and clean.”
She added that at these specially allocated visitor yards, “nothing is happening ; all the work has been stopped because there is a visitor”.
This view was not accepted by Dr Nikos Mikelis, non-executive director of Global Marketing Systems, Inc (GMS), who this week at Capital Link’s annual CSR (corporate social responsibility) conference, invited the European Commission and shipping industry stakeholders to visit India and witness recycling at one of the country’s best yards.
He told IHS Maritime: “I made the offer, and the yard I am proposing to take stakeholders to is what you might call a model yard; in fact it is one of the best yards in India, though there are other yards with much higher standards compared to the rest.
“The point I am making is that good quality yards exist and you should not penalise them because other yards have not bothered to invest in improvements. I am saying that by accepting these yards you will drive other yards towards investing in better standards,” he explained.
Heidegger said that visits cannot be made to yards in India and Bangladesh without official permission and so she and her team visited yards without this permission. She said that in Pakistan the ship recycling association allowed the team to look around, to film and take photographs.
However, in all cases, conditions were inadequate, she said, describing: hazardous waste storage facilities that were unused, sometimes locked, or with weeds growing out of the structures; no waste treatment facilities or incinerators; and asbestos put in bags and dumped in “wasteland” behind shipbreaking yards. She also described a hospital that had been built in Bangladesh with “100% private investment” for the yard workers. She revealed that the beautiful six-storey glass and concrete structure with marble interiors and 150 rooms was “empty” of doctors and patients.
“They found the money to build the structure, but they never agreed to operate it,” said Heidegger.
About the hospital, Mikelis noted: “The recyclers do not have the responsibility to build a hospital, or a school, or a power station. They [private donors and the recycling association members] did decide to do it for the benefit of the community in the area of the yards.”
Heidegger called developments at the yards “window dressing”. She conceded that on the walls of the yards signboards will state the right things, such as: ‘safety first’, ‘no child labour’, ‘do not enter the yard without PPE (personal protection equipment)’ but once inside “you will see teenagers working there, people not wearing helmets or gloves.
“From outside they try to make it look safe and clean but the reality has not changed that much,” she added.
This week, a documentary made by NGO Shipbreaking Platform and aired on German television criticized German shipowners for sending their ships to south Asian breaking yards.
Speaking to IHS Maritime, the German ship owners’ association Verband Deutscher Reeder (VDR) said it is frustrated that the international ship recycling regulation (the Hong Kong Convention on the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships) has still not come into force. Germany has not ratified the Convention. Only three countries have so far ratified it.
The VDR spokesman said that its members have given the “mandate” to support the convention’s ratification at all IMO meetings, and added that the VDR recently met with ambassadors from India and Pakistan to discuss conditions at the yards.
“They don’t want to lose the business so they are trying to improve their standards to finally match the standards that will come when the convention comes into force,” said the VDR spokesman. He added: “The problem is that we cannot set the standards for other countries. We can only say: we will provide you with helmets; or we can try and work together with the classification societies, which are also involved in raising standards.”
He added that the problem with providing gear such as helmets was that the workers sell them to get money. He was unaware of any other corporate initiatives to improve conditions at the yards.
Some shipowners, concerned at the human rights abuses and resultant reputational damage to their brand, are investing in safe and environmentally sound ship breaking. Maersk and Hapag Lloyd are two who have made the switch. Teekay told IHS Maritime that it is “actively reviewing the company’s guidelines for the sale of older vessels with the aim of making the process more robust”, adding that the process “has not yet been completed”.
Heidegger said that shipowners willing to “pay a little bit more” for proper recycling processes is the answer: “So that Indian and Bangladeshi ship breakers have an incentive to invest in a proper facility.”
Asif Khan, honorary secretary for Pakistan’s Gadani ship breaking yards, told IHS Maritime that the ship breaking’s steel selling business is under pressure from steel products sold cheaply from China. “This directly affects the ship recycling activities because the scrap that we are getting out of the ships we are not able to compete with these Chinese cheap products. That is the problem.” But he added: “Despite this, Pakistan is making a lot of effort and there have been a lot of improvements over the last few years on the safety and environmental side.” He said that the association was also in discussion with foreign and local consultants to help bring about changes, both legislative and administrative.
Heidegger noted that quality ship breaking yards for south Asia is possible, stating: “Modern ships for the German and the Danish fleet are being built in India in very modern and sophisticated ship building yards not far from some of the breaking yards, so it is not that the capability is not there. But as long as the shipowners are not willing to pay a proper price for recycling, the situation is going to continue.”