Wreckers in deep water

Financial Times
April 18, 2007

The largest ship breaking site in the world is fuelled by lax standards. But times are changing.

This is the place where ships come to die.

Alang, a coastal town in the north-western Indian state of Gujarat, is home to the world’s largest ship breaking industry. Its spoiled beach is littered with the carcasses of retired ocean liners, warships and tankers being disembowelled by fleets of low-paid Indian workers.

About half of the world’s retired ships arrive at this corner of India to be dismantled for scrap metal and other materials that are recycled and sold.

The industry has raised a furore among activists who decry appalling labour conditions and the environmental impact of toxic materials such as asbestos on Indian shores. Critics also allege flouting of laws that prohibit rich countries from dumping hazardous waste in developing countries.

Yet the benefits to shipowners of pulling ships apart in India – as well as other developing countries such as Bangladesh – are obvious: workers are paid Dollars 2-Dollars 4 per day, and environmental and labour rules are far laxer.

A case pending in India’s Supreme Court throws the controversial industry into the spotlight again.

The SS Norway, damaged by fire in 2003, late last year beached at Alang. But the 46,000-tonne cruise liner, previously owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines, is at the centre of a lawsuit filed by Indian activists that has prevented it being dismantled.

An inquiry is under way as to whether the ship, which allegedly contains 1,300 tonnes of asbestos, complies with international and Indian breaking rules.

Activists allege that the ship carries neither the documents required by international law, nor a complete inventory of its hazardous wastes, and that toxic materials should have been removed in Europe where safety standards are higher.

The Supreme Court of India has asked authorities in Gujarat and a technical expert committee headed by the environment minister to submit a report.

The Indian shipbreaking industry has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, most notably with the case of Le Clemenceau, the French aircraft carrier that was turned back from India early last year. Activists including Greenpeace filed a petition protesting the transfer of the asbestos-laden warship. Their actions led to Le Clemenceau being recalled to France.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) recently said ship recycling allows materials and equipment to be almost entirely reused. “Steel is reprocessed to become, for instance, reinforcing rods for use in the construction industry. Ships’ generators are reused ashore. Batteries find their way into the local economy.”

But although the principle of ship recycling “may be sound, the working practices and environmental standards in the yards often leave much to be desired,” the IMO said.

Planned international guidelines include a “Green Passport” for ships, a document with all potentially hazardous materials used in its construction. But activists say the slow pace of hammering out the joint guidelines are part of delaying tactics by ship owners.

Non-governmental organisations have also agitated for full compensation for workers and families afflicted by occupational death and disease.

Shipbreaking workers conventionally get little protective gear or training to work with the many toxic and flammable materials.

The industry has a high rate of accidents, with two casualties per 1,000 workers, against 0.34 per 1,000 reported by the mining industry, considered one of the most dangerous of occupations, according to Gopal Krishna of the Ban Asbestos Network of India.

Yet migrant workers from across India, particularly poorer states such as Jharkand and Orissa, continue to seek ship breaking work.

During peak times, Alang attracted as many as 40,000 labourers, all of whom work on a contract basis, though numbers dwindle to 4,000 when there is less work.

In Alang’s heyday in 1998, more than 350 hundred ships were pulled apart there, according to the Ship Recycling Industries Association of India. But numbers fell to about 100 last year, due to a global slowdown in ships scrapped and competition from Bangladesh.

Activists contend that migrant workers forced to eke out a living with no protection, literally and legally, are the worst victims of the industry’s risks.

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