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.”