Permalink to The nature of shipbreaking is casting a shadow over the shipping industry

Every year, thousands of shipping vessels succumb to rust, corrosion and metal fatigue; no longer deemed fit for purpose. When their time eventually comes, these goliaths of the sea are broken down in an attempt to recoup as much money from their demise as possible – a process known as shipbreaking. Ship breakers strip out absolutely everything: nothing is wasted. Any parts that can be sold for re-use aboard another vessel are salvaged first, with the remaining morsels extracted and sold for scrap.

Shipbreaking is an extremely profitable business. Scrapping companies pay roughly $400 per tonne, and so, considering the sheer size of the ships that come ashore to be dismantled, the process can easily add up to scrappers collectively paying a total of anywhere between $3m and $10m for a single vessel.

Shipbreaking takes place all over the world, but the manner in which it is carried out differs considerably: in developed countries, the process is handled the by the book, with scrapping companies forced to adhere to strict environmental guidelines outlined by the United Nations Environmental Programme’s (UNEP) 2003 Basel Convention, which stresses the importance of controlling the trans-boundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal.

As a consequence of the comprehensive enforcement of these rules, ship breakers in developed countries must ensure that practically every part of the decommissioned vessel is recycled, with only the small amount of unrecyclable materials left over as waste. The guidelines also ensure that before workers begin the process of dismantling a ship, all potentially dangerous materials, including any toxic or flammable gases and liquids, are removed. This procedure is carried out not only to protect the surrounding environment from leakages or contamination during the scrapping process, but also as a safety precaution for those tasked with carrying out the heavy lifting.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of shipbreaking does not occur on the beaches and dry docks of developed nations: more than two thirds of the industry is based in developing countries, specifically India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China (see Fig. 1). These countries have historically struggled to meet the international standards of practice, with employees forced to deal with working conditions that threaten their health and safety each and every day. What’s more, many of the workers that are tasked with carrying out this difficult and precarious process receive very little in the way of training, and are poorly paid for their labour.

Major industry bodies have campaigned tirelessly in the hope of getting South Asian scrap yards to adhere to international guidelines in an attempt to reduce shipbreaking’s environmental impact

“Without a voice in the workplace, daily abuses go unchallenged”, Nazim Uddin, the leader of the Bangladeshi shipbreaking union, explained in a report conducted by the global workers union IndustriALL. “Shipbreaking workers have miserable conditions. Workers are paid daily – no work, no pay. They receive no paid leave at all, no bonus, no gratuity, and have no job guarantee. Employers pay no compensation to the killed workers’ families. The High Court rules that each killed worker’s family should be compensated BDT 500,000 ($6,400), but employers do not respect this.”

In response to such allegations, major industry bodies, governments and numerous non-profit entities have campaigned tirelessly in the hope of getting South Asian scrap yards to adhere to international guidelines in an attempt to reduce shipbreaking’s environmental impact, and to improve the lives of workers involved in the industry.

All hands on deck
One of the loudest voices in the battle to improve the conditions in the ship recycling sector belongs to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). This organisation has helped to raise awareness about the sub-standard practices that take place within the shipbreaking industry, along with the environmental impact that these have and the dangers that they pose to workers.

“The industry accepts its responsibility to promote the safe and environmentally sustainable disposal of ships in the world’s ship recycling yards, the majority of which are located in developing countries”, Peter Hinchliffe, ICS Secretary General, said in a statement. “Adherence to these transitional measures should be seen as a sign of good faith prior to the entry into force of the IMO regime. But they will also help companies avoid falling foul of the separate EU ship recycling regime, which started to take effect on 31 December, and which is also relevant to ships flying non-EU flags.”

More recently, the ICS has reached out to its members around the world, encouraging them to follow a new set of transnational measures. This will in turn help those members to comply with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) Hong Kong Convention once the global regime comes into force. The ICS has expressed its hope that the measures it has outlined will help ship owners ensure that when their vessels reach the end of their life on the high sea, they will be recycled in the appropriate manner and scrapped by ship breakers using the correct procedures.

“The transitional measures demonstrate that the shipping industry is playing its full part”, Hinchliffe added in his statement. “It is disappointing that after six years the Hong Kong Convention has still only been ratified by a handful of IMO Member States. Governments need to make this a far more urgent priority if they are serious about improving conditions in ship recycling yards on a global basis.”

As such, despite increased regulatory pressure and the support of international trade associations like the ICS, conditions in many South Asian scrap yards are still abysmal, and have shown little sign of improving.

Graveyard shift
The men whose job it is to dismantle these end-of-life ships once they have run ashore on the beaches of South Asia are more often than not poor, unskilled migrants. The vessels in question are usually full the brim with toxic materials, and the workers must contend with a range of highly flammable gases and liquids. To make matters worse, these unqualified workers are rarely supplied with adequate levels of safety equipment or the essential tools that could make the shipbreaking process altogether far safer and simultaneously reduce the toll it takes on their physical health.

ShipbreakingAccording to the website Shipbreaking in Bangladesh, which is owned and operated by the non-profit social development organisation Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), in order to make up for the lack of equipment that they receive, workers in shipbreaking yards often resort to crude, improvised methods in order to try and protect themselves: “When a new ship arrives, there are containers, chambers and tanks which contain oil, petroleum and poisonous gases”, according to the website.

“One method used for checking the level of danger in these parts of the ship is to lower down chickens [on] a string to check whether there are dangerous gases. If the chickens survive, the first workers will enter to clean for oil, petroleum and other flammable substances. The flammable substances are often burned off before the cutters enter to rip the ship apart. Gas explosions [are] a common phenomenon.”

If the threat of explosions and poisonous gases wasn’t bad enough, workers are also at risk of being crushed to death by cranes and other heavy lifting equipment, which are placed on slick, muddy sand that is unable to adequately support them. The terrible conditions that these labourers work in combined with the lack of adequate safety equipment and the complete disregard for international regulations has led to thousands of ship breakers losing their lives.

The Gadani shipbreaking yard in Pakistan is one of the world’s largest ship recycling facilities. According to an IndustriALL article, its 15,000-strong workforce regularly works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, under horrendous conditions, while their pay is around PKR 12,000 a month – a figure that the union equates to around $113. The organisation also claims that workers at Gadani have no access to clean drinking water or first aid. The net impact of all this is that at this specific ship recycling yard, more than 19 people lose their lives every year.

Changing the tide
In order to bring an end to the needless loss of life and reduce the environmental impact of the industry, campaigners are urging countries around the world to implement guidelines outlined in the Hong Kong Convention, which was adopted by the IMO in 2009. However, so far only Norway, the Republic of Congo and France have fully ratified the convention, while Italy, St Kitts and Nevis, Turkey and the Netherlands have expressed their willingness to adopt the guidelines outlined in the agreement.

“Ship building for 130,000 workers in South Asia is predominantly done in medieval conditions”, said Jyrki Raina, General Secretary of IndustriALL, in the same article. “It is shameful that five years have passed since the Hong Kong Convention’s adoption and only three countries have ratified… The Hong Kong Convention will change lives.”

For the convention to enter into force, 15 states, representing 40 percent of the world’s merchant shipping (by gross tonnage), must be on board. As such, this initial undertaking is evidently not good enough. More widespread support is clearly required if these life-changing policies are ever to be put into effect.

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Economists react to ECB rate cuts

“Following the adverse reaction to previous measures in December and in light of the growing downside risks to economic recovery, the ECB Governing Council appears to have recognized the importance of not under-delivering again,” Capital Economics analyst Jonathan Loynes said Thursday shortly after the eurozone’s central bank announced three rate cuts and a boost to its asset-purchasing program.

His view was echoed by Craig Erlam, a senior market analyst at Oanda. He said: “The central bank came out all guns blazing on Thursday.”

Berenberg Bank economist Holger Schmieding argued the ECB package of new measures “exceeds expectations by enough to have a positive confidence impact not just on financial markets, but also on business confidence in the eurozone.

A catastrophe for savers?

But not everyone seemed convinced the new ECB measures would do any good.

DZ Bank economist Jan Holthusen said the move would do little to push up inflation in a sustainable manner. He noted that the inflation rate was much more dependent on crude oil prices “which are beyond the ECB’s influence.”

“The central bank is taking the risk to do too much of a good thing,” Holthusen added.

The president of Germany’s BGA trade organization, Anton Börner, called the ECB announcement “good news for stock traders and indebted southern eurozone nations.” Those countries would now feel even less inclined to push through necessary reforms, he said.

He added the move was “a catastrophe for Germans,” saying that savers in Europe’s largest economy were being expropriated. Börner said this had “the potential of turning into a very explosive situation.

hg/cjc (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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What does Brexit mean for the environment? It's a question that the Leave camp can't answer

What has the European Union ever done for us? Except for the cleaner beaches, air and water, lower greenhouse gas emissions and preserving wildlife?  Now three of Britain’s biggest wildlife and conservation charities have thrown down the gauntlet to Leave campaigners asking quite how they could guarantee Britain’s birds, bees and environment would be protected outside the EU.

I expect we’ll be waiting some time, because there is no way that they can. It is only through European cooperation that so many of the environmental protections we have now exist and will be protected in future. Global challenges like climate change need cross border cooperation or they’ll never be overcome.  

The three questions posed by WWF, RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts remind us just how much is at stake if we leave. First, how does being in Europe help Britain take decisive action on nature protection, pollution and air quality?

Inside Europe, the UK benefits from common rules that protect the country’s nature and wildlife, set limits for pollution and waste, and help us reduce our carbon footprint. Leaving the EU would mean an end to our automatic participation in Europe-wide rules that are vital to saving our environment, and could result in the loss of important safeguards for nature in the UK.

As the trio of campaign groups’ report rightly points out, the EU has had a positive effect on environmental standards here in the UK already. Whether is it a reduction in air and water pollution or greenhouse gas, increased use of renewables, transformed waste management, the withdrawal of toxic substances from use and a legal framework to protect the seas, the EU has led the way in making the UK a cleaner and greener country.

That’s not to say that the UK would be lost on its own: just that, as with our security and our economy, we’re stronger as a member. The same can’t be said for Britain being out on its own.

There are two versions of what that could look like according to the report. The first is that Britain leaves the EU entirely and loses its automatic participation in all EU environmental legislation. The second is that we remain part of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) or the European Economic Area (EEA) in a similar way to Norway or Switzerland. However, as a member of the EFTA or EEA we would still contribute sustainably to the EU budget but have no place at the table to direct future policy.

So no alternative available to us is as beneficial as our full membership of the EU – it’s a lose-lose scenario.

Working with our partners in the EU on the other hand, we can remain a world leader in developing solutions to the great environmental challenges. As the report says, “the environment has become an increasingly important concern for the EU” and that “measures introduced by the EU have been the result of rigorous, detailed negotiations, balancing the interests of all Member States, including the UK.”

One of the strengths of EU legislation is that it works on the principle of a shared and comprehensive effort. That’s meant it has created stable measures that allow for long term planning on the environmental challenges we face.

It “leads the world in environmental standards – setting and law making – for instance on water quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” Leaving the EU would present “UK law-makers with a huge challenge in terms of writing decades of complex environmental laws” in the reports own words. Why would we want to risk that?

The second question posed relates to our role internationally: how would we exercise leadership globally on climate change? For those like me that are proud that Britain is an influential, outward facing nation at the centre of global affairs, this is a particularly important question.

The truth is that the challenges Britain faces – whether climate change, food supply, desertification and deforestation – increasingly know no borders. That means that coordinated action between all countries is needed to effectively take on the challenge of tackling it.

By being in Europe, Britain is best placed to drive international action to this end. From Kyoto to Paris, being in Europe amplifies Britain’s voice in global climate talks and helps us to stand up against big polluting industries in the United States and China. Outside of the EU, Britain’s voice in these global forums would be diminished, and we would find ourselves outside of EU discussions on how Europe can lead on climate change.

Finally, the report asks what our vision is for more environmentally responsible agriculture and fishing in the UK. Britain has worked with the EU to provide important safeguards for our environment, while at the same time boosting British agriculture and providing vital funding for British farmers – a fact the Leave campaigns like to gloss over.

It is through our EU membership that the UK can support British farming while at the same time encouraging sustainable growth and transitioning to green technology when planning the future of UK agriculture.

The EU’s Common Agriculture Policy isn’t perfect: no-one would claim it is. It needs to be reformed but we need to be in the EU to do that. If we leave Europe, farmers across the UK would lose access to vital EU funding, putting their livelihoods at risk.

In the absence of EU funding, our agriculture sector would be competing on an uneven playing field with EU member countries. Of course, those advocating to leave the EU cannot guarantee that current levels of funding would be maintained. Indeed, the Campaign Director of Vote Leave has admitted that jobs in agriculture would be lost if we leave the EU. All that makes it even more unlikely environmental obligations would still be met, especially if the sector was competing again subsidised rivals in the EU.

The evidence in the report it clear: leaving would be damaging to the interests of both the environment and the agriculture sector. Keeping our seat at the top table on the other hand will mean Britain builds on its global leadership on environmental issues; guarantees a secure livelihood for our crucial agricultural sector; and continues to work with Europe driving forward the environmental agenda. The UK’s environmental protection is stronger in Europe. Leaving would put that at risk.

Lucy Thomas is deputy director of Britain Stronger in Europe.

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