Shipbreaking: clampdown in Asia will send it to Africa


8 workers were killed and 13 injured when the Agate exploded.

Eight workers were killed and 13 injured when the Agate exploded while being dismantled in Bangladesh

Following our exclusive investigation, Ingvild Jenssen from the NGO Platform on Shipbreaking explains how tougher regulations simply relocated the shipbreaking industry, and how the public can help stop the trade

The Ecologist: Why are companies sending ships to Bangladesh and India for scrappage?

Ingvild Jenssen: To gain maximum profits – currently vessels are sold to shipbreakers in South Asia for approximately $350 per ton – meaning that a ship owner has a profit of several million dollars per ship.

In India and Bangladesh vessels are dismantled at a very low cost since labour is extremely cheap and pollution laws weak or not enforced. Ships are simply run ashore on tidal beaches and broken by hand by migrant workers – many of them children.

Has this always been a problem or is it a recent phenomenon?

In the 1970s ships were dismantled in Europe under far better conditions that what we are witnessing on the beaches of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. But when Europe introduced stricter legislation to protect workers and the environment the industry moved to first Japan, Taiwan and China.

There as well safety and environmental rules were progressively introduced and the industry then moved to South Asia. It has therefore been a continuous race-to-the-bottom and we fear that Africa will be the next destination if no measures are introduced to stop today's dangerous and polluting practice of beach-breaking.

What are conditions like in the ship breaking yards?

IJ: Ships are simply run ashore on tidal beaches where thousands of vulnerable migrant workers – many of them children – dismantle these huge structures by hand. There is no containment of pollutants and no safety measures to protect the workers from deadly accidents such as explosions or being crushed by falling metal plates.

Noor Alam was told by his bosses that the Agate was free of gas and oil residues Credit: NLC 

In Bangladesh last year 26 young men were reported to have died on the job. Local NGOs estimate the number to be much higher though since no official records are kept, and the many that die of inhaling toxic fumes, or of cancers due to asbestos exposure, need to be added to the death toll.

What's the impact on the local environment?

IJ: Shipbreaking as practised on tidal beaches in South Asia is severely polluting sensitive coastal zones and affecting local fisheries. Breaking toxic ships on directly on beaches is not allowed in Europe.

Also, in Bangladesh there have been several incidents of illegal cutting of protected mangrove forests to make room for additional yards on the beach. These mangrove trees were originally planted to protect the surrounding communities from the devastating effects of the monsoon season and many cyclones that hit Bangladesh each year.

Why is it not illegal?

IJ: It is actually illegal – existing international law makes it illegal to export toxic vessels to developing countries and to break ships containing large amounts of asbestos, heavy metals, PCBs and waste oils directly on tidal flats with no containment.

In Bangladesh last year following a petition by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association the High Court ordered the closure of all shipbreaking yards in the country as none of them are operating with the required environmental clearances and are also clearly grossly violating existing national labour laws.

Most recently the Commerce Ministry in Bangladesh has, in line with the High Court judgement, ordered Customs officials to only allow the import of toxin-free end-of-life vessels.

Where else should companies be sending the ships?

IJ: There exists several facilities world wide that operate in an environmentally sound and safe manner – such as for example in the UK and Turkey where age requirements, trade union rights and safety regulations are in place. Also, these facilities do not operate on beaches.

When the NLC attempted to visit the yard, they found workers as young as 12 working seven-day weeks and being paid 27 cents per hour Credit: NGO Platform on Shipbreaking 

Unfortunately such facilities today have a difficult time competing with the South Asian beach facilities that currently break more than 80 per cent of the global fleet.

It is therefore necessary that policy makers at the European level enforce measures that will reward investments in safe and clean practices – such as the creation of a mandatory fund based on the polluter pays principle.

Shipowners also need to act in accordance with the law and end their dumping of toxic ships on the beaches of the poorest countries of the world.

What is the 'International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships' and will it improve the situation?

The Hong Kong Convention was adopted by the International Maritime Organisation in May last year.

It will not prevent a single toxic ship from being exported and dumped on the beaches of India, Bangladesh or Pakistan or any other developing country, and has been criticised by NGOs globally as representing a major step back with regards to existing international legislation aimed at protecting the environment and vulnerable communities in developing countries – namely the Basel Convention.

For these reasons the NGOs are calling on governments not to ratify the IMO's ship recycling convention. European countries should rather – as the European Parliament has also called for – put in place measures that improve implementation of existing legislation.

Which countries are sending the most ships?

Europe owns more than 40 per cent of the world fleet – so most European ship owners have inevitably sold end-of-life vessels to beach facilities in South Asia at some point. Greece however topped the list last year with more than 60 large ships sold to Bangladesh or India.

According to maritime law however, responsibility is put on the country where the ship is registered, not the shipowner – in most cases these are so-called flags of convenience (FOCs), or what you may want to call shipping 'tax havens'.

For end-of-life vessels the flags of land-locked Mongolia and the small pacific island of Tuvalu are extremely popular. Ironically the shipping authorities of both these countries have their office in Singapore – in the same building...

Why is the issue not given a higher profile?

IJ: Since the horrors on the beaches of India and Bangladesh were first brought to the attention of the world by NGOs more than 10 years ago not much has changed on-the-ground, unfortunately.

Due to the recent boom in shipbreaking following the mandatory phase out of single hull oil tankers and the economic downturn in shipping the conditions have actually become even worse. There are narrow, but strong, economic interests in keeping things as they are.

However, pressure groups have managed to put the issue on the political agenda – Bangladesh just recently ordered custom officials not to allow the import of toxic end-of-life vessels, and we are now expecting the European Union to adopt effective measures that will render the shipping industry liable for their end-of-life vessels.

Hundreds of ships are demolished each year on a fifteen kilometre stretch of coastline near the city of Chittagong Credit: NLC

Can consumers and voters have an impact on the issue?

IJ: Most consumers do not realise that almost every product they buy, from bananas to a new fridge, have been shipped across the world's oceans.

As shipping companies are not well known to the general public, there is hardly any public pressure to stimulate sustainable developments in the shipping sector. On the other hand, many cargo owners have developed CSR policies as they are more clearly exposed to public pressure.

The cargo industry and their demand for clean transport is therefore key to generating market incentives for sustainable developments in the shipping sector.

Cargo owners, such as big oil companies including Total, Statoil, Shell and BP; as well as big car producers and high profile companies such as Ikea, H&M, Nike and Carrefour can play an important role in demanding urgent and real change.

At the European level new rules will be discussed later this year and NGOs will need support to counter regressive industry arguments – and demand that toxic ships get off the beaches of developing countries!

Useful links
Platform on Ship Breaking
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