Lloyd’s List – Misplaced solidarity

(Written by David Osler)

16 October 2012 - Shipbreaking is dirty and deadly and better standards will save Asian workers’ lives

REBRANDING the sector “ship recycling” makes it sound as environmentally friendly as dropping off empty wine bottles and jam jars at the neighbourhood bottle bank.

But as the deaths of six workers at India’s Kiran Ship Breaking after an explosion last week underline, Southeast Asia’s shipbreaking remains perhaps the most dirty and deadly segment of the maritime industries.

Two owners and a manager have been arrested over the incident. Other yards in Alang have responded by shutting down in solidarity — not with the dead, but with those facing charges.

The three have been accused of culpable homicide, rather than death by negligence, which is usual in such cases. The local Ship Recycling Industries Association complains that this sets a precedent that could “hamper our business”.

It would be wrong to pre-empt the findings of any investigation into the casualty. But shipbreaking bosses do not have any right to immunity from due process. The tactics deployed by the SRIA send out an unfortunate message about priorities.

First-world campaigners who regularly highlight the physically dangerous nature and often deleterious consequences of shipbreaking are frequently pilloried as known-nothing westerners who would deny the third-world poor the chance to take on an activity in which low labour costs equate to decisive comparative advantage.

However, their concerns are entirely legitimate. The SRIA would do well to devote some of the money that the closure must be costing its members to improving their businesses’ safety standards instead.