Death and destruction in shipbreaking yards

A keynote discussion took place on the 15th May 2017 at the London Offices of Law firm Leigh Day. An invited audience listened to a panel of specialists including speakers from the ‘Shipbreaking Platform’¹ who are involved in trying to end the shocking damage to the lives of workers and catastrophic environmental impact of shipbreaking.

You have probably seen images of shipbreaking in places like India and Bangladesh: barefoot men in just a pair of shorts dragging Oxy-Acetylene steel-cutting equipment through the mud to start taking apart a beached supertanker. Shipowners earn millions of dollars scrapping ships in this way.

Most of the world’s ships that are scrapped each year are broken-up on the beaches of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Of the 862 vessels dismantled worldwide in 2016, 668 of them were taken apart on South Asian ‘beaching yards’ where thousands of workers are killed or injured annually. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has declared shipbreaking as being the most dangerous job in the world.

References throughout the discussion centred on the ‘Basel Convention 1989’ that controls the international movements of hazardous waste, the ‘Hong Kong Convention 2009’ and EU laws governing the shipment of hazardous waste and the recycling of ships. Serious weaknesses concerning the reach of International regulation of shipbreaking were identified that arise mainly because of the number of countries not signatory to the conventions and shipowners sailing under a flag of convenience.

Ingvild Jenssen, Director of Shipbreaking Platform said the EU has recently published a global list of approved ship recycling facilities that will become a global reference point for sustainable ship recycling. She went on to describe the limited scope of the Hong Kong Convention that does not ban the beaching of ships, regulate hazardous waste management or provide labour rights standards. Francesca Carlsson, also from Shipbreaking Platform, said better use of existing conventions on human rights could help regulate shipbreaking and referred to the ‘UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ where it specifies a “state’s duty to protect human rights” as an example.

Rizwana Hasan from the Bangladeshi Environmental lawyers Association spoke (via Skype) on the fight to make shipbreaking yards obtain the necessary environmental clearances to operate, and how vessels often had false certificates claiming no hazardous materials being present. Rizwana reported on successes in the Bangladesh High Court to force shipbreakers to obtain the necessary environmental clearances.

Ritwick Dutta, a leading Indian Supreme Court environmental lawyer

described the conditions at the biggest shipbreaking yard in the world at Alang. The yard has the capacity to break 450 ships a year. He said damage done to the environment and to the health of both workers and the community was “low-down as a concern for the Indian Government”.

The understated tone and precise language used by both Rizwana and Ritwick served to emphasise how terrible the conditions are in shipbreaking, but also their steely determination to hold those responsible to account.

Barristers David Hart QC and Claire McGregor who specialise in representing clients on environmental issues ran through a very interesting account of how shipowners might in future be held responsible in the courts.

The event was extremely interesting. The scale of the damage caused by shipbreaking yards to the environment and death and injury to workers is absolutely staggering. The London Hazards Centre will do whatever it can to support the courageous people spearheading the fight to hold accountable those responsible for the killing and maiming thousands of workers, and causing untold damage to the environment. Paul Street

¹ The ‘Shipbreaking Platform’ is a coalition of environmental, human and labour rights organisations working to promote the safe recycling of ships globally.

About the author

Philip Lewis

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