Lloyd’s List – The pros and cons of shipbreaking

(Written by Michael Grey)

23 March 2012 - Wista UK debates the Hong Kong Convention on Ship Recycling

SITTING on the left, although in political terms maybe he should be on the right, is Dr Nikos Mikelis, champion of the International Maritime Organisation’s Hong Kong Convention on ship recycling.

Sitting on the right, although possibly left of centre, is Ingvild Jenssen of curiously titled NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a coalition of environmental, human and labour rights organisations and supporters of the Basel Convention on transboundary movements of hazardous wastes, which has tried to include redundant ships within its remit.

“This house believes that the Hong Kong Convention offers the only enforceable regulatory regime for ship recycling” was the subject of the annual Women’s International Shipping & Trading Organisation UK debate.

Wista has never been afraid to tackle contentious issues head-on during its well-attended meetings. It is probably fair to say that people tend to attend such debates with a preconceived notion about the particular subject.

With ship scrapping, the audience will be divided into those who have swallowed the human rights and environmental line and those who tend towards rather more practical solutions; but would these opinions be altered in any way by the eloquence of the speakers?

Pragmatism, practicability and the sheer scale of the task of recycling a world fleet of 56,000 merchant ships was at the heart of Dr Mikelis’ message. The reality is that five countries – China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey – break 97% of recycled ships.

If 1,800 sizeable merchant ships are to be reduced into useful products per annum, there are no alternatives and we must improve what is there.

The Hong Kong Convention addresses ship recycling from this practical standpoint, reducing the risks for employees of the yards, putting more order and process into the business of sending a ship for scrap and giving encouragement to those who will do it properly.

While there have been no ratifications yet of the IMO convention, it is a complex document involving many ministries within any administration and these things take time. In practical terms, we need to encourage the agreement of the five scrapping countries that receive the ships, rather than the 150 nations that send them.

Since Dr Mikelis took his IMO role, he seems to have spent half his life in demolition yards. He also makes a strong case for these recycling operations’ employment and additional economic benefits, 99.9% of a large ship finding a secondary and productive use in the dismantling countries.

Certainly, when viewed from a developed nation perspective, working conditions in the yards leave something to be desired, but there is visible improvement taking place.

Ms Jenssen attacked the HKC’s “limits and loopholes” and pointed proudly to the work of Shipbreaking Platform in bringing the horrors of sub-continental scrapyards to the wider public. Activists seem particularly proud of having closed the demolition yards of Bangladesh for some time through local legal challenges.

She advocated greater national self-sufficiency, requiring flag states to take responsibility for scrapping their ships in local yards – a bit of a problem for Panama that? – and railed against beaching ships, a practice that accounts for nearly half the demolitions which take place.

HKC, Ms Jenssen suggests, will permit flags of convenience to avoid their responsibilities and help “unscrupulous” cash buyers to prosper. Warships and small ships will not be covered and will be permitted to spread toxic waste around unhindered.

Panelist Katy Ware, the UK’s permanent IMO representative, spoke up for thousands of workers in the recycling nations. It would, she said, be criminal to put people out of work.

The IMIF’s Jim Davis reminded people of the changing world of demolition, recalling the vast scrapyards of Taiwan, all vanished when more lucrative port industries came along.

Personally, I find the message of the Platform, with its well-meaning support for the irrelevant Basel Convention, irritating beyond belief for its complete lack of reality and common sense.

The demand for beaching to end, the sheer impossibility of promoting local shipbreaking industry, the fact that they really don’t seem to care about local employment in nations where jobs are in short supply and their denial of the reality of when ships are judged to be redundant – all, I suggest, diminish Platform’s case.

Worst of all is the sheer bossiness of trying to impose western, industrial-nation “elf and safety” attitudes  on developing nations and holding immovable we-know-best views that seem designed to enrage.

The HKC is not perfect, but it is a start. So now you know which way I voted. I am glad to confirm that the motion was carried – convincingly, if not overwhelmingly – by 25-15 votes.