Planning ahead

The ship recycling industry must transition to a more sustainable future

Figuring out a sustainable environment, economic expansion, and human rights to boost industrial growth and advancement has always been challenging for developing-country legislators. The ship-breaking sector in developing countries is one region that has recently come under growing stress from both domestic and global stakeholders to continue operating sustainably.

Ship-breaking is the process of disposing of end-of-life vessels, which can benefit both the economy and the environment by creating employment and allowing ship recycling. Ship recycling is widely regarded as the most ecologically responsible and cost-effective method of disposing of obsolete vessels.

Ships were mostly decommissioned in Europe and the US until the 1970s. However, as a result of stricter social and environmental laws in the Global North, the industry has shifted to areas with weak legal frameworks and policing mechanisms.

As per data compiled by the non-governmental organization Ship-breaking Platform, over the last decade, more than 70% of the estimated 800 vessels that reach the final of their operational life each year -- representing 80-90% in terms of tonnage -- have been scrapped on the beaches of Chittagong in Bangladesh, Alang in India, and Gadani in Pakistan.

The beaching of ships began due to the higher price offered to ship owners, not because it was safer, more environmentally friendly, or the most efficient method. When ship-breaking in South Asia first began in the 1980s, coastal zone management laws were either difficult to enforce or non-existent, allowing businesses to begin with no infrastructure upgrades and a cheap and replaceable labour force.

The beaching process works in the coastal region because the vessels are intentionally rooted during high tide, and breaking operations are generally performed during low tide, when the vessel is not submerged by the sea.

Risky business

Ship-breaking is a hard and risky sector that introduces workers to the risk of occupational hazards, as well as the environment (air, sea, and ground) to a high variety of pollutants. According to the International Labour Organization, ship-breaking has become an environmental health issue and is one of the most risky jobs in the world. 

There are numerous cases of death and injury at South Asian ship-breaking yards. Some of the most visible are large steel beams and plates that fall and crush workers under their weight, as well as blasts, flames, and lack of oxygen.

Workers whose lives could have been saved perish on the way to the nearest hospital because the situation is exacerbated by the reality that there are no hospital amenities capable of delivering the medical services to critically injured workers in the immediate area of the ship-breaking beaches.

Over the last decade, 210 workers died while working at Chittagong's ship-breaking yards. According to the International Law and Policy Institute's 2016 report, 470 workers died in Alang between 2005 and 2012, with an additional 50 deaths recorded between 2013 and 2018.

A lack of direction

Notwithstanding the dangerous working conditions and lax enforcement of labour laws, ship owners in Western nations suggest sending their ships to South Asia in order to obtain a better cost than other ship-breaking yards around the world. The payments made to the ship owner for the sale of an end-of-life vessel is determined by the price offered by the recycler per light displacement ton of steel. The price varies by region and tends to fluctuate over time as a result of external factors such as transport costs and national currency depreciation.

Aside from the price disparity caused by different domestic industries for steel products, the price issue reflects cost differences associated with environmental management and security. Beaching yards pass on these costs to the surroundings, labourers, and local communities, allowing them to increase prices for vessels. Basically, the greater the offered price, the worse the breach will be in terms of worker and environmental conservation.

Bangladesh's ship-breaking yards are located just outside of Chittagong, the country's largest port city. They stretch for about 15km along the coast of the Sitakund region. Due to its filthy and risky methods, ship-breaking in Bangladesh is heavily criticized by both international and local NGOs. 

There is a lot of existing legislation in Bangladesh, such as the Bangladesh Ship Recycling Act of 2018, the Ship-Breaking and Recycling Rules of 2011, the Hazardous Waste and Ship-breaking Waste Management Rules of 2011, the Bangladesh Shipping Corporation Order of 1972, the Merchant Shipping Ordinance of 1983, and the Factories Act of 1965.

Regrettably, no legislation has been enacted to explain the cost of ship workers' lives. Moreover, a research by Bangladesh's National Human Rights Commission and news reports have revealed violations of labour rights, disregard for labour laws, and infringements of safety standards.


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The perks of the trade

The main advantage of ship-breaking yards in South Asia is that they absorb large numbers of migrant workers and place them in low-wage jobs. In addition to providing job opportunities, the ship-breaking yards generate significant income for the government and significantly contribute to Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan's steel criteria.

The ship-breaking industry employs approximately 40,000 people in Bangladesh, ranging from management to administration and technical work. Ship-breaking accounts for roughly 60% of Bangladesh's total steel demand. Around 30,000 people are directly employed in the industry in Alang, and the annual turnover is around Rs6,000 crore. There are approximately 12,000 workers at the ship-breaking yards in Gadani, Pakistan, and the sector contributes 15% of the country's steel demands.

But the economy, employment, steel production, and the environment are all in jeopardy presently. In recent years, the number of ships arriving in South Asian countries for recycling has decreased. There are many reasons for this state of affairs in South Asian ship-breaking yards, but the most significant element has been non-compliance with labour and environmental laws and rules, accompanied by international authorities' campaign for a sustainable ship-breaking sector.

Putting regulations in place

Over the last decade, international organizations have increasingly emphasized effective compliance with international conventions such as the Basel Convention, 1989, and rules established by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to identify multiple ship-breaking issues.

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal came into force in 1992, and governs global hazardous waste trade. It is pertinent for ship dismantling, because a ship's structure typically contains dangerous waste. The Convention prohibits the export of toxic waste, along with ships, to developing countries, but it is widely ignored by the shipping industry in order to facilitate the continued externalization of environmental and labour expenses.

A beach, in fact, lacks the environmental conditions required to recycle a ship in a sustainable manner. Even if arrangements for the treatment of asbestos and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) were put in place at beaching sites, the fundamental problem of containing and collecting pollution would remain unsolved. Toxic materials within the ship's structure must be properly identified, located, removed, and discarded.

Concerned about labour rights and environmental pollution in ship-breaking yards, the European Union Commission created the Ship Recycling Regulation (EU-SRR) Code, which went into effect on December 30, 2018, and requires ship owners to send their ships only to certified green yards.

One-third of all end-of-life vessels dismantled on South Asian beaches are the responsibility of European ship owners. No ship-breaking yards from Bangladesh, Pakistan, or India have been included on the EU-green SRR's yard list due to a lack of proper waste storage facilities, employee health and welfare facilities, and cooperation from ship owners to provide the required documents.

If the ground scenario does not enhance and shipyards do not shift to sustainable ship-breaking practices, the situation for South Asian countries will be very concerning. The yards don't have many options for survival because internal politics, power structures, and lobby groups aren't going to persuade ship owners, who are increasingly preferring green yards in Turkey, China, and European countries, to dismantle their ships.

Some South Asian shipyards may succeed in short-term regulatory maneuvering, but this cannot be sustained in the long term.

Afsana Rubaiyat is a freelance contributor.