Human cost of shipbreaking

A study looking at the environmental and human cost of the notorious shipbreaking industry in the developing world makes for sobering reading.

End of Life Ships – the human cost of breaking ships is a joint report by Greenpeace and The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), that aims to shed light on the extremely poor working and environmental conditions that are still prevailing at shipbreaking yards all over the world.

The 64-page report contains a liberal scattering of statistics that illustrate the grim reality that sees wealthy countries dumping their hulks on the beaches of the developing world with little or no regard for the people or the environment.

But it is the dozens of tragic case studies, showing how real people are being maimed, crippled and killed with frightening regularity that really drives the point home.

Shipbreaking yards provide the last resting place for end of life ships.

At these yards, ships are scrapped, primarily for their steel content.

The industry provides employment to thousands of workers in Asia and allows the recycling of many materials used in the ship’s construction.

However, it is a dirty and dangerous business. Almost all of the vessels condemned for breaking contain hazardous substances such as asbestos, oil sludge, paints containing lead, other heavy metals like cadmium and arsenic, poisonous biocides as well as PCBs and even radioactive substances.

Greenpeace and FIDH delegations went to the working and living places of these workers in India and Bangladesh.

According to their field workers it was extremely difficult to gather comprehensive data about the shipbreaking workers.

Most of the time there simply are no records kept by the authorities and if these records do exist, they often do not reflect the reality.

Gujarat Maritime Board in India, for example, records 372 casualties due to accidents from the beginning of shipbreaking activities in 1983 up to mid 2004.

But, when compared to eyewitness statements, these official ‘figures’ about deaths by accidents seem largely underestimated.

In Bangladesh there are no records kept, neither by yard owners, nor by the authorities. The only written sources are the reports of local media.

The NGOs estimate that at least 1,000 people have died in Chittagong due to accidents over the last decades.

“Not all of the casualties of this toxic trade are known,” said Sidiki Kaba, president of FIDH.

“The stories represent only the tip of the deadly iceberg, it is estimated that the death toll over the last twenty years runs into the thousands.

“In addition there is no record of those who died of long term diseases related to toxic exposure.”

Workers die and get injured because of the poor implementation of labour rights at the yards in India and Bangladesh, including the lack of protective equipment and restrictions on the right to organise and join trade unions. When they die, they leave their widows and children without any income.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), hazardous waste watchdog the Basel Convention and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) met this week to discuss ways to bring the ship breaking industry under control.

The IMO has always advocated self-regulation and has announced plans to develop a new treaty on ship scrapping (see related story).

It will not come into effect for at least another five years, however, which means it is unlikely to affect the huge influx of single-hull tankers which must be phased out over coming years due to new regulations.

FIDH and Greenpeace claim immediate action is needed to prevent further deaths.

“The shipping industry is happy to continue to send undecontaminated end of life ships – with asbestos, other hazardous waste and dangerous gasses in their structure and tanks – to places where workers and the environment are not protected and without taking any measure to prevent fatal accidents and pollution” said Marietta Harjono of Greenpeace International.

“While the talking continues so does the dying. This week’s discussions must conclude at a minimum that until the IMO provides new regulations for shipbreaking, the ILO Guidelines on shipbreaking and the Basel Convention should be applied.”

The launch of the report has been timed to coincide with the decision-making meeting and the high profile Greenpeace blockade of the redundant French aircraft carrier the Clemenceau, which the Government plans to send to India for scrapping.

By Sam Bond

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