A controversial industry says it is cleaning up its act. Activists still want it shut
27 October 2012 -
IN THE 1960s the MD Alpine, a Greek ship, washed up on a beach in Chittagong. Locals scurried out to the vessel and pulled off what they could. A cheap and resilient labour force, coupled with flat beaches for intentional strandings, ushered in the start of a new industry for Bangladesh: dismantling the great hulks of the sea and selling their steel for scrap.
At its height in 2008 Bangladesh’s ship-breaking industry accounted for half of all ships scrapped in the world, according to IHS, a consultancy. Today the country accounts for around a fifth.
In these years Bangladeshi ship breakers found themselves at the forefront of criticism as NGOs and pressure groups exposed some of the worst practices causing environmental and human harm. These included high health risks due to injuries, noxious fumes and the handling of asbestos. Critics say one way in which Bangladesh competes on cost is that poor workers are unlikely to file claims for accidents or bad health. Another advantage is (or was) the use of child labour.
In 2009 the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), a public-advocacy group, convinced the Supreme Court to ban all ship recycling not meeting certain environmental standards. The court’s decision meant that by 2010 the ship-breaking industry had come to a halt. Zahirul Islam of PHP, a local manufacturer with a big ship-breaking division (the industry prefers to call it ship recycling), says that for 14 months the company was unable to import a single vessel for breaking.
Knock-on effects hurt the wider economy. A World Bank study estimated that ship breaking employed over 200,000 in Bangladesh. Many of the jobs were subsequently lost. And domestic steel prices rose sharply. Half of all Bangladesh’s steel comes from breaking ships.
Under pressure from the ship breakers, Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has since relaxed the regulations. Hefzatur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association, believes this has saved the industry. From just a score of vessels scrapped in the main part of Chittagong two years ago, about 150 were broken up in 2011.
Greens are not happy and want the ban reimposed. Delphine Reuter of the Shipbreaking Platform, an NGO in Brussels, describes ship recycling as “close to slavery”. It and BELA are leading the call for more regulation. That bothers international shipping firms and ship brokers, which argue that Bangladeshi ship breakers have cleaned up their act.
At the International Maritime Organisation, the UN agency responsible for curbing shipping pollution and ensuring safety, the head of pollution prevention, Nikos Mikelis, says environmentalists present Bangladesh with a false choice. “They say they are happy to have the industry, but not on the beaches. Where do they want it? In the mountains?”