Problems and Solutions


In 2012, approximately 1,250 ocean ships reached the end of their service life and were broken down to recover steel. Yet only a fraction was handled in a safe, sustainable manner. More than 70% of all end-of-life ships were simply run ashore on tidal beaches in developing countries such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, where unscrupulous shipbreaking companies exploit minimal enforcement of environmental and safety rules to maximize profits. But the remaining 30% also remain an issue – ship recycling facilities in Turkey and China still face massive difficulties in complying with all standards of environmentally sound management of hazardous waste.

On the beaches of South Asia, poor and unskilled migrant workers are deployed by the thousands to break down the ships manually. The ships are full of toxics such as asbestos, lead, PCBs and heavy metals and little care is given to worker safety or protection of the environment. The toxic wastes sicken the workers and ravage coastal ecosystems, and because the muddy sand and shifting grounds of tidal beaches cannot support heavy lifting equipment or safety gear, accidents injure or kill hundreds of workers each year.

The statistics are alarming. The European Commission estimates that 40.000 to 1.3 million tonnes toxics (including 3.000 tonnes of asbestos) on board end-of-life vessels are exported each year to South Asia from the EU alone. In Bangladesh, children under 15 years of age count for 20% of the workforce. There and elsewhere, the total death toll runs into the thousands. Also, miles of protected mangrove trees, essential to ecosystem health and protection from monsoons, are being cut to make way for ships. This and the accompanying poisons from shipbreaking have killed or devastated dozens of aquatic species, destroying also the livelihoods of surrounding fishing communities.

A cemetery for ships and men

Causes of death at the shipbreaking yards in South Asia include explosions, fire, suffocation and accidents caused by extremely heavy steel beams and plates which fall and crush workers under their weight. Also, the constant exposure to toxic materials and fumes is the source of many diseases, including cancer. Asbestos dust, lead, organotins, such as the extremely toxic organic tin compound tributyltin (TBT) used in anti-fouling paints, polychlorinated organic compounds (PCBs), by-products of combustion such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxins and furans, and other harmful substances are found both on the yards and in the workers’ sleeping quarters located close by.

Some cancer types and asbestos related diseases will only occur 15 to 20 years later, making many more casualties among former shipbreaking workers as well. The average life span of a South Asian shipbreaking worker is alarmingly low: 40 years old.

Exploitation and economic dumping

Workers’ wages in South Asia are less than 2 Euros per day. The workers barely have enough money to eat, let alone send to their families. Sometimes they are not paid at all. No contracts are signed on the shipbreaking yards, against the workers’ will. If there is an accident, the yard owners often refuse to recognize the injured person as a worker from their yard and do not pay compensation, nor any medical fees. To further disempower the workers, trade unions are forbidden at the shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh.

The considerable profits made in the shipbreaking industry are not being used to improve working conditions or to protect the coastal environment and local communities from pollution. Ship owners currently exploit workers and weak enforcement of environmental regulations in developing countries to get rid of their end-of-life vessels in the cheapest way. By selling their ships to South Asian yards ship owners are prioritizing high scrap prices at the detriment of human lives and the environment.

Breaking the law when breaking ships

The shipping industry is in most cases not being held accountable for the human rights abuses and pollution caused by shipbreaking practices in South Asia today. It is extremely easy for a ship owner to circumvent existing laws that aim to protect developing countries from the dumping of toxic wastes. The shipbreaking and shipping industry have systematically opposed the litigation initiated by Platform member BELA in Bangladesh and advocacy work by the Platform at the European and international level aiming at policy developments that will improve implementation of existing laws such as the United Nations’ Basel Convention.

In 2009 the International Maritime Organization adopted the Hong Kong Convention on Ship Recycling. This convention does little to deal with the issues at stake. Amongst the many weaknesses of the Hong Kong Convention is the lack of putting the responsibility for proper ship dismantling on the polluter – in this case the ship owner – and the acceptance of the beaching method. To this date no countries have ratified the Hong Kong Convention.


Prompt and sustained action, both in the marketplace and in the courts, is required. The need is especially urgent because the global phase-out of single hulled oil tankers and current backlog of old vessels still in operation mean that the number of retired ships sold for breaking is about to spike. The shipping industry and policy makers must urgently ensure the following:


Ships should be dismantled in contained areas where safe use of heavy lifting gear and emergency access for fire fighting equipment and ambulances can be ensured.
See also our corporate campaign:

Workers Rights

Existing international labour rights should be respected. Workers should have the right to assemble, to bargain collectively for better conditions and have access to occupational health clinics.

Stop Dumping of Toxic Ships

Enforcement of existing laws on exports of toxic ships must be improved. Loopholes the shipping industry is currently exploiting must be closed and responsibility for implementing the law must be borne by countries with jurisdiction over the beneficial owners of ships.

The polluter pays

A ship dismantling fund fed by the shipping industry must be created in order to internalize costs currently borne by the environment and the health of impoverished communities in developing countries.

Eco Ship Design and Recycling

Ship owners should, together with shipbuilders and classification societies, commit to the building of clean ships to avoid future disposal problems and Green Ship Recycling Yards should be identified and rewarded.

Corporate Responsibility

The shipping industry should take immediate measures such as replacing hazardous materials with clean alternatives during maintenance and survey stops and gas-freeing their ship-for-scrap before export to developing countries to ensure the safe and environmentally sound dismantling of their vessels.

(Photo credits : Pierre Torset – Shipbreaking)