Breaking ships, risking lives

New EU safety proposals for vessel-recycling could save hundreds of south Asian workers from injury and poisoning, writes John Vidal. But some developing countries say stricter rules could wreck local economies.

When the rusty, old supertanker Lara 1 reached Bangladesh in late April, the captain stoked up its engines for the last time and rammed it as far up the beach at Chittagong as possible. The 70-metre-tall, 400-metre-long iron colossus now squats in the mud in the Rising Steel ship-breaking yard, waiting to be picked over by an army of young men risking their lives for little more than US$1.60 a day.

The Lara 1 is one of the largest corpses in the world’s biggest graveyard of ships. A half-dismembered bulk carrier lies on one side, the remains of a European car ferry on the other.

Beyond it – stretched along about 20 kilometres of what just a decade ago was a pristine sandy beach – ore carriers, container ships, gas tankers, cruise liners and cargo ships of every size and description are being dismantled by hand in 140 similar yards. Every year more than 250 redundant ships, many from Europe, come here to be broken up.

It will take gangs of oxyacetylene cutters nearly six months to dismember the 42,000-tonne Lara 1. In the first week, say its owners, oils, toxic sludges and other waste will be pumped out, parts of the bow and some bulkheads will be removed and the recycling will start. The cable, the steel, the generators, funnels, propellers, lifeboats, companionways, sinks, toilets, even the light bulbs and every nut and bolt of the Lara 1 will be sold on the Bangladeshi market, to be turned into construction materials, girders, metal sheets and furniture. The sheet metal will be used for riverboats and coastal craft.

“Every bit of this ship will be recycled, reused and resold,” says Hefazatur Rahman, chairman of the Mostafa Group of Industries, which paid US$20 million to buy the Lara 1 for scrap. “Nothing will go to waste. This ship will help build Bangladesh. We dismantle 2.5 million tonnes of steel a year from Chittagong, but we need four million tonnes to keep growing.” If world steel prices rise in the next year, says Rahman, the Mostafa Group could make a US$10 million profit – or lose everything if prices fall, as they did in 2008.

But now, in a move that India, Bangladesh and other developing countries with major ship-breaking industries say could wreck local economies, the European Union has proposed laws stating that ships registered in Europe should be broken up only in licensed yards meeting strict new environmental guidelines. It estimates that up to 1.3 million tonnes of toxic materials on board end-of-life vessels are sent each year to Chittagong and other ship-breaking yards in south Asia from the EU alone, with “incalculable” risks to workers.

Under the system, outlined recently in Brussels, European ships will have to remove toxic wastes before they are exported, and ship-recycling yards will have to meet strict environmental and safety requirements. European ships will be recycled only in the best yards.

Few yards in Bangladesh or India, the world’s two largest centres of ship-breaking, can expect to meet the proposed standards without massive investment. Figures are hard to verify but, say local Chittagong watchdogs, in the past 10 years hundreds of men working in the 70 breaking yards have died or been maimed or poisoned. Many are from the poorest communities in the country.

“On average, one worker dies in the yards a week and every day a worker is injured. It seems like nobody really cares,” says Muhammed Shahin, an officer with Young Power in Social Action (YPSA). “Workers are easily replaceable to the yard owners: if one is lost, they know another 10 are waiting to replace him. The government collects the taxes and turns a blind eye.”

“Explosions of leftover gas and fumes in the tanks are the prime cause of accidents in the yards,” Shahin says. Other accidents are caused by falls – because the men are not given safety harnesses – or by workers being crushed by falling beams or plates, or electrocuted.

Recently, the Exxon Valdez, the ship responsible in 1989 for one of the largest oil spills in US history, was sold for scrap and is expected to be broken up on a beach somewhere in south Asia. [The vessel, now known as the Oriental Nicety, was denied entry into the west Indian port of Alang in early May. Bloomberg News reported that the move came after a New Delhi-based activist with Toxics Watch Alliance argued in a petition to the Indian supreme court that the ship contained asbestos and heavy metals.]

“It is outrageous that this ship, which has already created one environmental catastrophe, is being allowed to kill and pollute yet again,” said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, which works to prevent the globalisation of the toxic chemical crisis. “The ship’s owner must be held accountable for simply selling this toxic time bomb and then walking away.”

According to the YPSA, most workers wear no protective gear and many work barefoot. “There is hardly any testing system for the use of cranes, lifting machinery or a motorised pulley,” says Shahin. “The yards re-use ropes and chains recovered from the broken ships without testing their strength. Fires, gas explosions, falling steel plates, exposure to poisons from bunker oil, lubricants, paints and cargo slop have left thousands with respiratory diseases.”

But the breakers insist that safety conditions have improved. “We have changed. It is much safer now. It’s quite different,” says Nazmul Islam, secretary of the Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association (BSBA). “We are installing modern equipment and are guided by international law. We have built a 150-bed hospital for workers. The supreme court in Bangladesh has given us new directives, and we have incinerators and separators. Compared with just three years ago, it’s much better. We now have storage facilities for asbestos.”

But the EU environment commissioner, Janez Potočnik, is not convinced. “Although the ship recycling sector has improved its practices,” he says, “many facilities continue to operate under conditions that are dangerous and damaging. This proposal aims to ensure that our old ships are recycled in a way that respects the health of workers as well as the environment. It is a clear signal to invest urgently in upgrading recycling facilities.”

What is certain is that ship-breaking has become essential to Bangladesh’s breakneck industrial growth. Apart from providing nearly half the steel the country of 160 million people uses a year, the government collects nearly US$15 million in revenue from an industry that employs more than 20,000 people directly and as many indirectly.

Copyright © Guardian News and Media Limited 2012  

Homepage image by Stéphane M Grueso shows a cutter at a ship-breaking yard in Chittagong, Bangladesh