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The human cost of ship-breaking
January 09, 2006 12:23 IST
As activists protest against the journey of French warship -- Clemenceau -- to India where it is scheduled to be dismantled in Alang, Gujarat, the working conditions of the labourers employed in these ship-breaking units has once again come under the scanner.
If reports and statements by human rights activists are anything to go by, every year hundreds of workers are victims of deadly accidents at the yards of India, Bangladesh and other ship-breaking countries.
Ship breaking yards provide the last resting place for End of Life ships. Every year the shipping industry sends around 600 ships to these yards. It is at these yards, that the ships are scrapped, primarily for their steel content and also to recycle many materials used in the ship's construction. Ship scrapping provides employment, directly and indirectly to thousands of workers in Asia.
A large number of this workforce, says the report, are from families living below the poverty line. They migrate to Alang – ship breaking unit in India -- mainly from Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar. They are unqualified, have little or no education, and are easy to exploit.
"Even though ship breaking is considered one of the most hazardous and heaviest occupations by the International Labour Organisation, these workers have no adequate training nor the equipment to scrap these ships in such a toxic environment.
The workers break ships with their bare hands. Their general living conditions after coming to these yards are extremely bad," says Yashwant.
The reserachers who prepared the report say the living conditions of workers in Alang is "pathetic" and little attention is paid to their health and safety concerns and that they are highly vulnerable to the deadly AIDS.
"The labourers here live in poor housing and sanitary conditions. The combination of hazardous working conditions, congested and unhygienic living conditions, poor quality drinking water and rampant prostitution have given rise to a number of skin, gastrointestinal, liver related diseases, besides tuberculosis, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases" they say in the report.
The report exhorts the UN institutions and governments of both the ship-sending and ship-receiving countries to implement an effective, mandatory regime based on the existing Basel convention -- the convention that regulates ship-breaking industry - to ensure that international standards on labour, safety, health and environment are respected at the ship-breaking yards across the world.
"There is an urgent need to include the environmental justice and human rights principles when negotiating a more effective global regime on ship breaking. While the developed countries can pre-clean and decontaminate these ships before departing them, the governments where these units are located should endeavour to guarantee implementation of domestic legislation and international commitments to protect workers and the environment," the report summarises.
However it is a "dangerous" and "dirty" business as almost all the vessels condemned for breaking contain hazardous substances such as asbestos, oil sludge, paints containing lead, heavy metals like Cadmium, Arsenic, poisonous biocides and even radioactive substances.
"Ship-breaking involves environmental justice as well as human rights issues. This report aims to shed light on the extremely poor working and environmental conditions prevailing at these yards. Labourers who lose their lives working here are hardly ever mentioned and even if they are reported, it is mostly as 'numbers'. No one knows their real story. It is difficult to gather comprehensive data about these workers as there are no records kept by the authorities. At times, they don't have a basic thing like an I-card," says Shailendra Yashwant, Campaign Director, Greenpeace, adding that the workers are not allowed to form trade unions.
The report that has been compiled illustrating the life and times of ship breaking workers in India and Bangladesh alleges that there are discrepancies between the official death figures of these workers and witness stories and that these figures do not include 'hidden' deaths -- casualties as a result of diseases.
"When compared to eyewitness statements, official figures seem largely underestimated. There are many who die or get handicapped on the spot because of accidents like explosions due to ship tanks not freed from gas and due to lack of safety measures. Yet others die slowly because of illnesses related to toxic fumes and materials they are exposed to the whole day. Some cancer types and asbestos-related diseases will only occur 15-20 years later. There is no record of such deaths," it says.