In the Bangladesh port city of Chittagong, activists want the EU to get tough on the booming ship recycling industry that has become notorious for its poor labour and environmental safety records. New EU legislation is already in the making and could be finalised in June.
Negotiators from the European Parliament, Commission and Council are due to meet on Tuesday (7 May) in the first round of talks aimed at hammering out a regulation on the scrapping of old ships – many of which end up in South Asia for dismantling and recycling.
The Bangladesh industry has long been the target of labour rights campaigners and environmental lawyers. Today, business is booming, buoyed by a surplus of ocean-going vessels and home-grown demand for raw materials.
“At the rate ship breaking is going on in the ship-breaking yards, those workers are working like machines, they are dying every day and there are massive explosions, accidents and injuries,” said Muhammad Ali Shahin, the Bangladesh coordinator for the Shipbreaking Platform, a Brussels-based campaign group.
“That’s a very common thing of the industry because there is no safety, no precaution, no training and no care for the workers,” Shahin said in telephone interview from Chittagong, one of the busiest ship dismantling areas in South Asia.
Shahin said as many as 20 workers were killed on the job last year, but the human toll is believed to be much higher because official figures do not count the long-term illnesses suffered by workers handling asbestos and other toxins without safe disposal facilities.
Globally, some 1,300 ocean-going vessels were sent for recycling in 2012, 838 of which ended up in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. More than 300 originated from EU countries, according to data collected by the Shipbreaking Platform.
Shipping tax divides Parliament
The European Parliament on 18 April approved legislation that would put the EU in line with a global agreement on the safe dismantling of ships, known as the Hong Kong Convention, which was adopted by delegates to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 2009 but has not yet been ratified.
The EU regulation would be obligatory for all EU states. It includes a ban on beaching, or parking vessels in coastal areas for dismantling, and requires the EU to monitor overseas facilities handling the recycling of European vessels.
While the overall legislation had overwhelming support in the Parliament, there was a different reception for a proposal to impose a tax on all ships entering EU ports to help finance EU-approved recycling facilities in third countries. The tax, backed by Swedish MEP Carl Schlyter (Greens), was defeated by a narrow vote, 299-292, though the Parliament said the levy should be considered in future.
The differences must now be hammered out by the EU’s three-decisionmaking branches over the next month.
Pressure groups are already lining up, with campaign organisations like the Shipbreaking Platform calling for the restoration of the tax, and the shipping industry pressing for a reversal of some obligations approved by MEPs.
Shippers say battle isn’t over
“The battle is still far from over,” said Simon Bennett, director of external relations for the International Chamber of Shipping in London, which opposes provisions that would allow EU inspections of overseas recycling facilities and the ban on beaching of end-of-life vessels.
The chamber contends that the Hong Kong Convention on ship breaking addresses labour safety and environmental protections and that the legislation approved by MEPs would put the UN ratification process are risk. The convention, if ratified, would be overseen by the International Maritime Organisation, or IMO.
“It would be extremely difficult for the EU members states to ratify the IMO convention” if the EU regulation is approved, Bennett said, adding that China, India and others “would not ratify it if the EU doesn’t and that would mean the end of the IMO convention.”
Bennett said the proposed regulation’s call for monitoring of third-country facilities and the beaching ban would not be acceptable to some of the ship-breaking nations that have already supported the Hong Kong agreement.
“In itself, beaching is not an unacceptable method of recycling ships so long as it complies with the IMO conventions,” Bennett said in a telephone interview.
Fighting for the tax
Faced for years with lawsuits brought by the Environmental Lawyers Association in Dhaka and pressure from other groups, the Bangladesh government in recent years enacted laws to protect coastal areas and the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people who work in the ship recycling industry.
At the same time, the industry and government say ship recycling not only provides employment, but is a vital source of raw materials, including iron, that are otherwise unavailable in the poor nation of 164 million.
But the Shipbreaking Platform’s Bangladesh coordinator discounts such claims, saying “in fact, they are damaging the environment, killing the workers and they are violating the national and international law.”
Shahin said Bangladesh and other countries engaged in ship dismantling would benefit from European investment in safe facilities for the recycling of ships and disposal of toxic materials.
“The way ship breaking is going on in Bangladesh and India, for instance, they are just breaking the ships on the seashore, and they’re just cutting the ships on the ocean, and all the toxins are going onto the sea and into the environment,” he said.
Shahin’s group is urging governments to require that recycling take place in dry docks are equipped with safety equipment and disposal facilities, and that funds be made available to do so.
“When we say this there is the argument that it’s not possible for a country like Bangladesh to make dockyards to break ships, 50-60 ships at a time. In that case, the European shipping companies who want to send their ships and who want to get rid of their ships, they should finance to build [ship-breaking] facilities in our country.”
Patrizia Heidegger, executive director of the Shipbreaking Platform, has accused centre-right politicians in the Parliament of bowing to the shipping industry in killing a fund to improve environmental and working conditions at recycling operations.
“The idea of a fund has been discussed for 15 years at the European level. Let’s face it: the Parliament failed to uphold its own principles and to deliver as promised,” she said in a statement after the parliamentary vote on 18 April. “Last year, one European ship was sent to a substandard beaching yard in South Asia every day. The EU needs to move now if it really wants to hold European shipowners accountable.”
A proposal to impose a tax on all ships entering EU ports to help finance EU-approved recycling facilities in third countries was narrowly defated by the European Parliament on 18 April. The tax, backed by Swedish MEP Carl Schlyter (Greens), was defeated by a narrow vote, 299-292.
"While the EP has voted to put an end to European ships being recklessly scrapped in developing countries in hazardous conditions, this is jeopardized by the failure to adopt a financial mechanism to support it,” Schlyter said in a statement after the vote. “It is very frustrating that a narrow majority succumbed to highly misleading lobbying by the maritime sector, seeking to shirk its responsibilities, and voted down the proposed financial mechanism that would have made safe ship recycling competitive."
End-of-life vessels containing toxic materials or residue and sent abroad for dismantling fall under the Basel Convention, a UN-administered treaty on the disposal and shipment of hazardous waste.
“One of our demands is to ensure that the pre-cleaning of every ship before it starts moving to shipbreaking countries,” said Muhammad Ali Shahin, the Bangladesh coordinator for the Shipbreaking Platform, referring to the Basel treaty.
“We have to ensure that the ships are toxic-free,” he said. “It has to be ensured by the international parties and also the national government. So that means the continuity is there. The last port of the ships also [must] be sure that the toxic waste is removed, and also our national government has to ensure that whatever is coming, it is not bringing any toxic material.”
The UN’s Hong Kong convention, agreed in 2009, is not expected to enter into force until 2020. It would set labour and environmental standards for the dismantling and recycling of ocean-going cargo vessels and tankers.
The European Parliament on 18 April approved a draft regulation that would adopt the international standards, but also called for inspections of overseas facilities recycling ships and a ban on the beaching of end-of-life European ships.
In 2012, some 1,300 ocean-going vessels made their final voyage to the scrap yard; 488 went to India and 229 to Bangladesh, according to figures from the Brussels-based Shipbreaking Platform. China, Turkey and Pakistan are the other leading destinations.
- 7 May: First of three anticipated rounds of negotiations on ship recycling legislation between the European Parliament, Commission and Council.
- June: Final vote on compromise legislation expected in European Parliament
- 2020: Anticipated date for International Maritime Organization members to ratify the Hong Kong Convention on ship recycling
- United Nations Environment Programme: Basel convention [FR] [SP]
- International Maritime Organization: Recycling of ships
- International Maritime Organization: Shipping facts and figures (2012)
- International Labour Organization: ILO adopts new guidelines for ship breaking
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- Shipbreaking Platform: Homepage