Ship of Sorrows

Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2016

FOR millennia, the symbol of the ship epitomised hope and the promise of new horizons. With the discoveries of new lands and the onset of trade, the image of the ship was besmirched with the sufferings of human cargo — the slaves — transported in and out of continents. Then, more recently, emerged the phenomenon of boats full of refugees and immigrants capsizing on Western shores. What remains hidden, or not so visible, in our collective consciousness is the story of ships being broken down across South Asia’s shores, bringing in their wake death and despair to those who dismantle, bit by bit, the decaying, hazardous, mammoth machines.

Hence, it was barely a surprise when many of this nation’s newspapers deemed unfit for front-page publication news of the dead, the trapped and the injured workers of the recent disaster at the Gadani ship-breaking yard.

An image or two on the TV news channels soon vanished, replaced by tickers few could comprehend. Even Labour Watch Pakistan, the news portal on labour rights, placed it third on a list of four stories in its bulletin. The dynamics of this global industry and its impact on workers remain little discussed, except for some efforts among civil society and alternate media groups to highlight the plight of the workers involved.

A ship lasts about 25 years and then it must disintegrate. A dying ship contains large amounts of carcinogens and toxic materials — oil sludge, asbestos, paints laden with heavy metals — besides steel, iron, wood and other recyclable items.

Up until the late 1960s, ships were dismantled in the countries of their origin. As the pressure for environmental regulations and occupational health and safety standards increased in the wake of international laws and treaties, the rich countries played smart — circumventing laws, changing flags — and started selling their old ships to middlemen who would then sell it to scrap metal profiteers in South Asia. Gradually, in the 1980s, the ship-breaking industry came to be moored on the beaches of Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

No doubt the recyclable material — particularly steel — comes in handy and is cheap for Pakistan’s economy. Also, the task of dismantling inducts a significant chunk of poor, unskilled or semi-skilled, marginalised, low-paid labour that is unable to find any other means of livelihood. So, the government turns a blind eye to the human, social and environmental costs that this industry entails.

The workers toil without protective gear — helmets, goggles, boots, gloves — at dangerous heights, and live in makeshift huts at Gadani without electricity, safe drinking water or medical facilities. There is no inspection and monitoring of the hoisting and hauling equipment, the dangerous work processes or the work conditions.

Apparently, the only requirement before a ship is beached and broken is for a no-objection certificate to be issued by the Balochistan government’s Environmental Protection Agency after the submission of an impact assessment. Although Pakistan is a signatory to the Basel Convention, no compliance legislation is in place. A labour inspection system hardly exists, and violations of the Factories Act, 1934 and relevant environmental laws are rampant.

The global players are reluctant to ratify the International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, adopted by the International Maritime Organisation in Hong Kong in 2009. The convention cannot be enforced until it is ratified by at least 15 ship-owning and ship-scrapping nations.

Nonetheless, several countries are preparing to follow the IMO-developed guidelines for early implementation once the convention is finally enforced.

Based on the Hong Kong convention, in 2013 the European Union adopted its own Ship Recycling Regulation to regulate the recycling of EU-flagged ships scrapped in South Asia and announced the establishment of a European list of ship recycling facilities that meet the regulation’s requirements by the end of 2016. It is a pity that, given its current state, Pakistan’s ship-breaking industry will not meet EU requirements in the foreseeable future, which may jeopardise its GSP-Plus status.

News of the arrest of the ship-breaking company’s owner and of the chairperson of the Ship Breakers’ Association — flickering for a while on a certain TV channel and mentioned in passing in a news report — augurs well, despite the inadequate coverage of this important accountability measure.

Now is an opportune time for civil society groups to engage in judicial activism and initiate public interest litigation. The case law against prevalent ship-breaking practices has been of help in Bangladesh and India. In 2009, Bangladesh’s supreme court decision to shut down domestic ship-breaking yards that do not possess environmental clearance has helped further the cause of green methods of ship recycling. Also, the government must pay heed to recommendations put forth by the SDPI in its 2013 report for turning this bleak trade into a green industry.

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