By Morten Rønning
The world's tanker fleet stands before a massive increase in ships which are sold to be scrapped, as ships from the shipping boom in the late 70s are becoming 25 years old. Asia is the leading ship-wrecking area, and India is the biggest nation in the business. After several serious accidents and international attention to the problems, India has made the security regulations for the workers more stringent, at least on paper. This has led to an increase in the number of large ships which have ended on the shores of Bangladesh. Therefore, NorWatch visited the country to look into the conditions of the shipbreaking industry. Below follow some of the findings of the report:
Barefoot in the mud
Scrapping of ships in Bangladesh mainly takes place on the beaches north of the second biggest city of the country, Chittagong. The scrapping of ships is labour-intensive activity, and the approximately 30 shipyards employ around 30.000 people. Most of the workers come from other parts of the country. The work takes place on muddy beaches, where one often has to wade in knee-high mud to disassemble the gigantic steel constructions. Only a minority of the workers wear shoes, as these only get stuck in the mud. Working gloves and protective eyewear are rarely seen, in spite of frequent use of cutting torches inside the ships. Helmets and breathing protection are non-existent. When using cutting torches, many toxic gases will be released when the paint melts. At the same time, the ships built in the 70s contain lots of dangerous chemicals which the workers are not equipped to treat safely.
0.10 US dollar per hour
Even though Bangladesh is a low-cost country, an initial salary of 0.10 US dollar (5 taka) will not pay for more than a life in the slum areas. Children as young as ten years old are recruited to carry steel scrap and heavy wires. If they work long enough in the business they may work their way up to a monthly salary of about 58 US dollar. Still, that is far less than what is estimated as the minimum for a decent life outside the slum.
In the shipwrecking yards, almost all the workers are on short term contracts. This makes it almost impossible for the workers to get organised. This again leads to a lack of protection against arbitrary lay-offs during recessions. There is only one rule: no work - no pay. And the lack of a social security network makes the future of the many disabled workers of the industry very uncertain.
Lack of environmental precautions
Det Norske Veritas, a classification company, has prepared a survey of environmental toxins found in a supertanker built during the 70s. The list contains, among other things, asbestos, PCB, lead, TBT, hydrocarbons, PVC and CFC. Despite the fact that poverty in Bangladesh has made people very inventive when it comes to recycling, many of these chemicals will end up in unsafe barrels, run into the ocean or be emitted into the air. The workers and the local population have no protection against this environmental pollution.
As a result of pollution, there is no more fish in the coastal areas, and the many thousands of fishermen in the area now have to go far away from the shore to find fish. And the total catch has decreased dramatically since the shipwrecking industry started in the 1970s.
Norwegian authorities have, along with the shipowners association, taken an initiative towards the maritime organisation of the UN, the IMO. The Norwegian Ministry of Environment is working on a proposal to the committee's session in March. Norway will propose that international regulations should be developed by IMO, which will secure environmental and working conditions locally. Certifications of ships to be scrapped, and of the shipwrecking yards, are considered.
In addition to this initiative, the report concludes that Norwegian authorities and the shipping companies should finance and implement local efforts while waiting for an international regime to be established. Such effort should include:
-Providing accurate surveys of the toxins in every Norwegian ship that is sold to be broken up, and making them available for the yards,
-contributing to the establishment of local collecting stations for dangerous waste that will not be recycled,
-contributing to giving the workers protective equipment, and initiating the use of it,
-contributing to the establishment of medical clinics for the workers,
-contributing to the establishment of general compensations for death and mutilation,
-contributing to minimising the negative effects on the local settlements, by supporting local projects.
Recycling all the materials from a ship is a good practice, if the materials are handled safely. To ensure safe scrapping and recycling, the ships of the future must be made from materials which have less harmful effects on the environment and the workers.
Norwatch Newsletter 1/00