Maritime & Ports ME – Dangerous and dirty

(Written by Delphine Reuter)

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2 April 2014 – Delphine Reuter, Communications Officer at NGO Shipbreaking Platform on the dangers of shipbreaking and why it’s still the elephant in the room.

The past few years have seen an unprecedented number of shipping companies selling their older ships for breaking, most of them choosing to do business with South Asian shipbreaking yards. More than half of the some 1200 ocean-going ships dismantled around the world in 2013 ended their course on the tidal beaches of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Vessels can be sold on the global recycling market for a price per ton ranging from 150 USD in Europe to 480 USD per ton in South Asia. Apart from low labour costs, the main reason for this difference in price is that in the South Asian shipbreaking countries authorities do not strictly enforce existing occupational safety rules and environmental protection laws.

Beaching – the practice of running ships onto beaches for dismantling and recovering their steel – is extremely dangerous for the workers and the local population, and is harmful to the environment. As long as shipbreaking is practiced on sandy or muddy beaches, full containment of pollutants and the adequate management of hazardous wastes is not be possible.

Whereas in Europe, cranes are used to remove the heavy pieces of the ships, in South Asia the shipbreaking yards use what they call the “gravity method”: heavy steel structures are cut and pulled with ropes, falling onto the beach as the cutting process is advancing. Accidents, needless to say, are happening daily. Our local contacts in Bangladesh reported at least 23 fatal accidents in 2013. The death toll makes it one of the most dangerous jobs in Bangladesh. We assume that many more deaths, resulting from accidents or occupational diseases, go unrecorded.

Untrained shipbreaking workers are exposed to hazardous materials when they cut the ships apart: asbestos, PCBs, heavy metals, fuels, organic waste can be found in varying quantities on almost any ship. According to the standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), shipbreaking workers need to be fully protected with the use of masks and protective respiratory equipment. Instead, they are kept in the dark about the long-term health impact of working in the shipbreaking yards. Studies carried out in the shipbreaking yards say workers show signs of asbestos-related diseases and respiratory problems.

International law prohibits the export of hazardous end-of-life ships to developing countries but they still end up being beached in substandard facilities. The European Union has failed so far to reverse this toxic tide: 80% of the ships sold by Greek and German companies last year were broken in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Other cleaner and safer methods for ship recycling exist: the landing method in Turkey; the pier-side method in China; and the dry dock used by Chinese and British facilities, which is the safest and cleanest methods of all. Choosing any of these methods is better than beaching a ship in South Asia.

The main barrier to improve the situation on the ground is the lack of transparency and some of the shipbreaking yard owners’ behaviour who refuse to admit that the industry is indeed responsible for the deaths of hundreds of workers. Even when Bangladeshi courts have paid out compensations to the workers’ families following fatal accidents in the yards, the shipbreaking yard owners continue to deny the reality. The more reluctant they are to letting doctors and trade unions monitor the workers’ situation and health, the riskier the workers’ daily work becomes.

Only with a healthy and open dialogue with civil society organisations can the shipbreaking yards in each country distance themselves from the hazardous, accident- and pollution-prone industries they have contributed to create.