Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Ship Breaking a Health, Environmental Hazard 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday,  Monday, February 6 / 12

Zack Gross

A propos of the sinking of the luxury liner, the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy in January, one might wonder what will happen to that ship once the immediate issues of collecting the victims and siphoning off the fuel are accomplished. 

After the media coverage has come to a halt, what is the process of dealing with the wreck – as wrecks are dealt with continuously around the world?  And what effect do these “mishaps” and the resultant clean-up operations have on the health of people involved and the environment around them?

It’s called ship breaking.  It’s big and deadly business. 

Ultimately, the salvage operation involves the dismantling of ships for further use of their parts and components, some at end-of-life, and some after breaking-news disasters. 

The global shipping trade is growing exponentially with an estimated 90,000 ships now active on the world’s oceans.  The life cycle of a commercial ship is 25 to 30 years. 

Estimates are that 1000 large ships per year are broken down, and that this figure will grow quickly.  At least three-quarters of ship breaking takes place in other-worldly massive “yards” in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China.  These developing country locations are used because safety, health and environmental regulations are more lax. 

Using beaches with just the right slope and tidal and geological make-up, and with the availability of cheap labour, Asia hosts this dirty, under-reported industry. (Satellite photo.)

Ship breakers in Third World countries do this work because it is a way out of poverty and starvation, although still dangerous and underpaid.  They often work literally with their bare hands. 

With blow torches, sledgehammers, chisels and wedges they carve up ships that rich nations have discarded.  Massive hulls are cut down into hundred kilogram pieces and loaded onto trucks to be sold as scrap, a profitable business for their bosses.

Ship breaking labourers actually live on site, in hovels with little furniture, with no facilities such as showers or latrines, spending long days taking ships apart for recycling and re-use.  Toxic substances they handle or are exposed to include asbestos, lead, mercury and low levels of radiation. 

Workers are also at risk from fires, electric shock, fumes, defective equipment and themselves falling from scaffolding. They also work in locations where the temperature reaches 40 degrees Celsius, thus being susceptible to heat stroke. They also choose not to wear hot, heavy protective gear. 

Workers suffer broken ankles, severed fingers, smashed skulls and many diseases, from dysentery to tuberculosis.  They may die coughing from the dust and chemicals they’ve been exposed to or in a sudden fall or from falling debris.  Instead of steel-toed boots, they wear the sandals they brought from their poor village.

As the ship breaking business is economically important to the developed world, employing thousands of people and yielding millions of tons of material, things are not about to change in bettering the lives of these workers.  In fact, efforts to bring in regulations have created controversy in the countries affected. 

The companies, for instance, wanted the right to bring in ships to Bangladesh, the hub of this industry, by just declaring the ships to be free of toxins but without resorting to third-party inspection and certification. 

Government, supported or urged by labour, brought in regulations, then rescinded them, and then brought them in again after massive protests. 

Now the industry is appealing the regulations in court.  In India, companies affected by new health and environmental regulations are complaining that they are losing business, thus affecting the economic welfare of Indian citizens, while the industry moves to other countries with lower standards. 

New technologies are being developed to mitigate the risk to ship breaking workers, such as the use of lasers, wire saws and mobile shears, and biodegradable chemical washes. 

However, these are only available to rich world operations such as in the U.S., where the Americans use them to break down their own military vessels.

Ship breaking and the labour, health and environmental issues surrounding it, are hidden to most of us. 

With international organizations and the media tackling more of these injustices – child labour, human trafficking, child soldiers – it is hoped that progress can be made to make the lives of the working poor safer and more dignified. 

It would be interesting to trace the path that the Costa Concordia will now take from a wreck on a beach to the cut-down beaches in some remote Third World location, and on to be a part of other ships or buildings sometime in the future.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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