By Catie Brown
When it comes to shipbreaking, a “Not-In-My-Backyard” mentality exists in which high-income countries ignore their accountability for their impact in low-income countries. In the last few years, shipbreaking made its way onto international platforms for its contribution to environmental degradation. Currently, the NGO Shipbreaking Platform is covering a wide range of topics related to shipbreaking including, but not limited to: human rights issues, environmental issues, and different international efforts to solve these problems. If we focus on just one subject at a time, we could be missing the point. We need to analyze the interconnectedness between all aspects of shipbreaking in order to solve the crisis in its entirety.
Shipbreaking is the process of scrapping or recycling sections of a ship for steel and other materials when it is no longer useful or profitable. Shipbreakers can recycle up to ninety-percent of a ship for high profits. The Export Promotion Bureau estimated that shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh made $30.35 million between July and December of the fiscal year 2018.
The two largest shipbreaking locations are Alang-Sosiya, India and Chittagong, Bangladesh. Shipbreaking is most commonly carried out in low-income countries where labor is cheap, there are relatively fewer safety regulations, workers are desperate for jobs, and limited environmental regulations exist compared to high-income countries such as Germany or England.
One of the leading problems of shipbreaking is the environmental impacts associated with its process. Environmental damage from shipbreaking includes soil contamination, air and water pollution, and biodiversity loss. For example, by 2009, Bangladesh had lost twenty-one of its fish and crustacean species due to water contamination from the shipyards.
These environmental impacts affect animal life as well as the humans that rely on natural resources. For instance, the fish found in the area have high levels of dangerous metals. This has decimated the fish populations that local citizens depend on for food. Additionally, the deforestation of mangrove trees to make room for shipbreaking beaches makes the surrounding areas more vulnerable to typhoons and less able to control pollutants. In 2009, over 40,000 trees were illegally cut down to make room for shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh.
Along with the threats to human well-being based on environmental impacts, there is also a lack of appropriate action being taken to protect shipbreaking workers from human rights violations. The IndustriALL Global Union, an organization which aims to improve trade union power and preserve workers’ rights, labeled shipbreaking as the most dangerous job in the world. Accidents include falling objects, fires, explosions, and hazardous material exposure. To make matters worse, most workers do not have access to protective equipment because it is an extra cost for employers. Moreover, most workers do not wear the protective gear even when it is available due to the heat and humidity.
Low-income countries constantly deal with the difficulties that come with the lack of labor regulations, but their problems are intensified with the presence of the dangerous and poorly managed shipbreaking yards. In Alang-Sosiya and Chittagong, daily wages are as low as $1.5, but only as high as $7, depending on the shipyard or position. In addition, no formal contracts are written for shipyard workers, so it is almost impossible to advocate for their rights. However, hundreds of willing workers are always lined up due to the high rates of unemployment in these areas. This also allows employers to replace any protesting workers because there are so many eager ones on standby.
Furthermore, this industry is devastating for youth in low-income countries because they are greatly taken advantage of. In Chittagong, around twenty-five percent of shipbreakers are under the age of eighteen, most of which work night shifts. They are paid much less than other employees and have a much higher chance of being injured on the job. However, they continue to accept positions to support their families.
It is also difficult to write accurate reports on shipbreaking because NGOs and journalists are often banned by shipyard owners in an attempt to conceal the negative aspects of the industry. According to the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, they were continuously denied access to view the working conditions of the shipbreaking yards in Alang by the Gujarat Maritime Board, a maritime leader in India.
Even though the major effects of shipbreaking still persist, there have been some efforts to reduce the impacts that hazardous waste has on low-income countries. In 2009, the International Maritime Organization of the United Nations adopted The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships. The convention included cooperation with the International Maritime Organization and the International Labor Organization to assure appropriate steps be taken towards the regulation of shipbreaking. It aimed to protect the health and safety of humans and the environment from the threats of ship recycling. Though it was a step in the right direction, only six countries have signed the convention out of a necessary fifteen. The signatories have yet to include India or Bangladesh, which prevents them from generating great improvements in safety regulations for their workers and protections for their ecosystems.
The first step suggested for solving the problems of shipbreaking is the ratification of the Hong Kong Convention. Nevertheless, there is still a lot more work to be done. For example, the convention does not set restrictions on the use of beaching for the shipbreaking industry, which is a major contributor to its environmental impacts. Additionally, the convention does not hold the shipowner responsible for their subsequent production of pollutants.
Another step that could be taken is the creation of international laws that have an increased focus on human impacts. This would include the acceptance of the International Labor Organization's guidelines for safer shipbreaking practices. However, these exist simply as recommendations and not legally binding for shipbreaking yards.
The NGO Shipbreaking Platform suggests that action should be taken in both the regulation of shipbreaking markets and in judicial systems. They advocate for the termination of beaching, the increase in workers’ rights, polluter fines, and corporate responsibility for environmentally friendly practices and materials.
In the end, the most important thing is to protect the shipbreaking workers and the citizens of the areas surrounding shipbreaking yards. We must listen to their concerns in order to understand how truly detrimental and life-threatening current shipyards are in locations such as Along-Sosiya and Chittagong. We must also create more dynamic international laws that hold high-income countries as well as ship owners responsible for their contribution to the problems of shipbreaking. Additionally, the laws must include regulations for both labor and environmental policies. If we do not strictly and legally regulate the dangers of shipbreaking on an international level, then the destruction of ecosystems and human well-being will continue to escalate and impact thousands of more lives.
Catie Brown is a freshman from Alexandria, Virginia. She is majoring in International Relations through William and Mary’s international honors program with St. Andrew’s University. She hopes to focus on environmental policy as it relates to international regulations in her future professional career.