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Ship recycling: 52 deaths in 2016 lead to calls for reform

Shipbreaking must take place in safe recycling facilities following the deaths of 52 workers in the sector over the course of 2016, according to the NGO Shipbreaking Platform’s annual report, released yesterday (16 May).

The report calls on shipping companies to sell their obsolete vessels to safe recycling facilities after 86 per cent of the world’s end-of-life tonnage was broken under rudimentary conditions in South Asia, the epicenter of the shipbreaking sector.  

A series of serious incidents in 2016 cost workers their lives in the area’s shipbreaking beaches, including the worst explosion in shipbreaking history, killing 28 workers and injuring more than 60 on a beached oil tanker in Gadani, Pakistan.

Further deaths have been reported in other South Asian shipbreaking sites, with 22 men dying and 29 more suffering serious injuries in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and at least two workers killed in Alang, India, over the past year, although this figure is feared to be higher as there is no record of accidents in place.

The NGO Shipbreaking Platform – a coalition of environmental, human, and labour rights organisations working to promote safe ship recycling globally – says that policy makers and relevant industries are increasingly calling for more stringent monitoring and regulation over the recycling of end-of-life ships.

In particular, the Platform wants ships to be recycled in facilities that will be registered on the forthcoming EU list of global ship recycling facilities that comply with environmental and health and safety standards, rather than those that follow the cheap but polluting and dangerous method of beaching, whereby a ship is intentionally grounded ashore to make the break-up procedure easier. This process is banned in Europe, the US and China.

In the report, Ingvild Jenssen, Director at the NGO Shipbuilding Platform, said: “The need for the NGO Shipbreaking Platform to continue to counterbalance arguments from an industry not used to being held accountable for its devastating practices is, more than ever, crucial.

“We expect European shipping lines that seek to call themselves socially and environmentally responsible to adhere to European standards. We expect European banks and investors to back that call. The future of ship recycling is on the EU list, and not on the beach. With continued commitment from Platform member organisations and increased cooperation with industry leaders, the Platform’s quest to prevent the human rights abuses and environmental injustice provoked when ships are traded to dirty and dangerous breaking yards continues, strengthened, in 2017.”

Breaking point

The issue of rudimentary shipbreaking poses a severe environmental and safety threat.

In 2016, 862 vessels were dismantled, 668 of which were broken using dangerous beaching methods, with Bangladesh the preferred destination, breaking almost 9.5 billion tonnes of vessel, far ahead of India, which scrapped 8.2 billion tonnes. Greece was the worst offender for sending ships to the South Asian beaches, with 104 Greek ships ending up there, only marginally ahead of Germany with 97.

Ships reach the end of their seafaring life after between 20 and 30 years and are then scrapped, which can be a very lucrative process for shipping companies as a ship’s steel, constituting around 90 per cent of a ship’s structure, can be recovered and sold on.

The price a company gets for the steel, of course, depends on the size of the vessel and the price of steel at a given time. Much more money can be made from breaking a ship in facilities with lax environmental and labour laws.

Ship recycling: 52 deaths in 2016 lead to calls for reform
The front page of the 'NGO Shipbreaking Platform' annual report
The practice of beaching is particularly dangerous for a number of reasons. The practice takes place on intertidal beaches, which does not allow for the use of proper machinery and cranes, nor does it allow for the containment of spilled hazardous waste and toxic materials from the ship. These hazardous wastes pollute the surrounding environment and are very harmful to the workers involved in the breaking of the vessel.

What’s more, where shipbreaking is not carried out in safe conditions, workers are exposed to occupational hazards such as explosions, falls from great heights, and falling steel. Workers are often sent to work with inadequate safety equipment or training, and very few receive compensation in the event of injury leading to disability.

For European shipping companies to escape scrutiny and responsibility for these dangerous practices, they sell end-of-life ships to cash buyers who act as intermediaries before selling on the ship for scrap at beaching yards. These cash buyers often replace the flag on the ship with the flag of a country with lax implementation of international maritime law, offered for a cheap ‘last voyage’ registration fee.

Call to action

In order to ensure the safe recycling of end-of-life vessels, the NGO Shipbuilding Platform calls for:

  • Dismantling of vessels to be carried out in a dry dock, where they can be recycled in a secure industrial site with proper heavy machinery, or at the pier-side, where ships are moored at a quay where they can be demolished with the help of cranes.
  • The EU global list of approved ship recycling facilities to maintain high standards and not to cede to pressure from shipping countries that still want to use the dangerous beaching demolition method, while introducing a financial scheme based on the polluter pays principle to dissuade ship owners from using dangerous recycling methods.
  • Cargo owners and financers to demand that the ship owners they do business with use safe recycling facilities and ensure their business partners do not continue to dump old vessels on beaches or inadequate facilities.

The full report can be accessed on the NGO Shipbreaking Platform website.

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