Where do the "floating dustbins" end up ?

Labour Rights in Shipbreaking Yards in South Asia
The cases of Chittagong (Bangladesh) and Alang (India)

A global issue

Shipbreaking exemplifies both the potentialities and the
dangers of an increasingly globalised economy. As Northern
corporations delocalise their activity (and waste producers,
their hazardous materials) to developing countries with a
cheaper labour force, they create economic opportunities for
thousands of labourers, and contribute to the economic
growth of regions in need of private sector investment.

In this respect, shipbreaking provides employment for tens of
thousands of workers throughout the Asian continent; it also
provides for large quantities of steel, and thus acts as an
alternative to the non-renewable resource of ore, while
representing an important source of supply for second-hand
equipment. To the extent that practically 100% of the ship is
recycled, shipbreaking can to a certain extent be called a
"green" industry. In the terms of an 2001 OCDE report on ship
scrapping: "Ship demolitions remove large volumes of
obsolete tonnage from fleets, recycle many of the materials
used in a ship’s construction and is a major employer in the
main shipbreaking areas".

At the same time, this delocalisation exposes workers in
developing countries to dangers that would be unacceptable
in industrialised countries, and sets for far lesser standards
than the internationally agreed ones in terms of rights at
work: in effect, it creates two classes of workers. The dangers
inherent to shipbreaking are now well known and well
documented: it is a highly dangerous activity, which exposes
the labour force to risks of death, serious injury and chronic
health problems through the exposure to toxic substances.
The inability - or the unwillingness - of governments in
developing countries to enforce human rights, their fear to
see the industry relocate to an even lower cost country, and
their vulnerability in the face of private operators, translate
into power relations - at the expense of the workers. As often,
economic profit takes precedence over the respect of
fundamental rights and freedoms.

The issue then, as often is when human rights are intertwined
with economic development, is that of responsibility. National
governments of the countries where the yards are situated
hold ultimate responsibility for protecting the rights of
workers; but the various private or semi-public operators
along the chain cannot be exonerated, and should also be
held responsible for the conditions in which they sell their
ships (as it stands, the ship owner can exempt himself from
any responsibility for the hazards that the ship contains, thus
contravening the principle that "the polluter pays"), or, for the
shipbreakers, the conditions they impose on their workers in
the yards.

But if the most visible and documented story of the human
rights abuses of shipbreaking workers is about the
shipbreaking industry and the governments of developing
countries, the second story is being played out at the
international level, as shipbreaking workers are at the (losing)
end of the long, but under-regulated, system of the
international shipping industry.

Hence, while Western nations have been rightly criticised for
using these yards as dumpsites (thus satisfying their
increasingly environmentally conscious domestic public
opinion), their governments seem content with merely and
narrowly adopting procedures to guarantee the future
"greenness" of the ships to be built. Unfortunately, the
question is much broader, as governments, and
predominantly Western governments have created a situation
where unscrupulous States and ship-owners can evade most,
if not all, regulatory responsibilities; as it stands, ship
ownership and registration - the key to enforcing regulation -
now operates through a clandestine, confidential and nontransparent
system of flags of convenience (FOCs), essentially
tax havens, in which over 50% of the world’s fleet is
registered. Ultimately, until the anomaly of FOCs is adequately
addressed, governments and intergovernmental
organisations such as IMO will remain powerless to effectively
regulate the industry, and namely, to ensure that
shipbreaking is a secure industry.

One key issue within this under-regulated global shipbreaking
system is therefore the lack of an adequate policy response
from industrialised countries, from where a bulk of the ships
originate. Outside of an effective regulatory framework that
balances the rights and responsibilities of the various
stakeholders, a disproportionate amount of pressure is being
felt by the shipbreaking yards in developing countries. The
first link in this chain of (de-)responsibility lies with FOCs, who
neither car, but more importantly, cannot be forced to abide
by a regulatory framework as a whole. Under their obligation
to international co-operation, industrialised countries have to
take their responsibilities seriously to help create a balanced,
effective and enforceable regulatory framework, including a
systematic ship scrapping programme to eliminate over-age
vessels. To this end OECD member states should use all
intergovernmental institutions at their disposal, along with
bilateral technical assistance programmes.

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