The intolerable hulk

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 May, 2009, 12:00am

In the searing heat of a July morning last year, 13-year-old Sultan Nasiruddin Molla set off for his first day of work along the seemingly endless stretches of muddy coastline in Chittagong, Bangladesh, where young men armed with wrenches, hammers and blowtorches swarm like ants over the rusting skeletons of beached ships.

Sultan, no doubt excited at the prospect of joining the world of grown-ups and collecting his first working wage, never made it home. Hours after signing up to join the ragtag brigade of workers dismantling a 5,000-tonne vessel with a scrap value of US$4.2 million, a steel girder from the ship's precarious wreckage crashed down onto his head and killed him.

The teenager's death in Chittagong was nothing unusual. Sultan was the 10th worker to die in 2008 in the city's ship-breaking industry; more than 11 per cent of the 30,000 labourers are estimated to be are underage, conditions are notoriously perilous and wages average between US$1 and US$2 a day. This week, however, the spectres of Sultan and hundreds of other young men who have lost their lives taking apart giant ships on the beaches of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan rose up briefly to cast a shadow over the deliberations of shippers and industry officials gathered at a diplomatic conference in Hong Kong.

Today, the high-profile meeting of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is expected to approve a new convention it says will make the recycling of ships safer and more environmentally friendly - but opponents say it explicitly excludes action to prevent more deaths on the beaches.

Protesters made their macabre point by staging a mock Bangladeshi funeral outside the Convention and Exhibition Centre, where some of the global shipping industry's most important figures were gathered, to emphasis their plea for an end to the practice of 'beaching' - allowing old ships to be run ashore and taken apart by peasant workers on the beaches of South Asia.

'We did it to represent the 50 to 60 deaths that happen every year in the South Asian beaching yards in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh,' said Jim Puckett, of the Basel Action Network, which took part in Monday's protest and is one of 100 organisations in 30 countries to have appealed in vain to the Hong Kong conference to take a tougher line on beaching.

The convention to be signed today is 'so weak it is not even willing to condemn the beaching method which everyone knows is unsustainable', Mr Puckett argued. 'We are sending out an SOS to all the delegates to change their course and condemn this exploitative beaching practice.'

Mr Puckett said beaching presented a frightening spectrum of dangers that should no longer be accepted. 'These ships have a lot of asbestos on them and heavy metals, and they give off very toxic fumes when they are cut open with cutting torches,' he said. 'There is a lot of open burning on beaches and there are horrific accidents from explosions or from falling steel.'

In Bangladesh, where around half the world's big ships are dismantled, studies have found that the work is done by an overwhelmingly young, poverty-stricken and economically disenfranchised labour force. More than four in 10 workers are aged 18 to 22, and only 1 per cent are aged 46 or over. They have no formal contracts and fewer than 10 per cent have access to any medical facilities.

An International Labour Organisation report quoted a Bangladeshi labour expert as saying of the workforce in the Chittagong industry: 'I would not say they are like slaves [because they can leave] ... but the conditions under which they are working is like slavery because they have no rights to say anything, to bargain or to establish an organisation of their own.'

However, in a country where poverty is rife, work on the beaches of Chittagong is keenly sought after, particularly by migrant workers from the north of Bangladesh, despite the appalling dangers and lack of labour protection,

The industry also plays a vital role in the economy of Bangladesh. Before the shipyards boom of the 1980s, the country of 153 million used to import most of its steel. Today, around 90 per cent is supplied by its recycling industry.

As one of the world's busiest container ports, Hong Kong is responsible for many of the rusting hulks that end up on the beaches of Bangladesh and South Asia. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen pointed out in his opening address to the conference on Monday that Hong Kong's shipping register is over 40 million gross tonnes, making it one of the world's top five.

'Our shipowners own, manage or operate more than 1,500 vessels, representing over 9 per cent of the world's merchant fleet in terms of deadweight tonnage,' Mr Tsang said.

That stake, according to Mr Puckett, should place a particular burden on Hong Kong shipowners to support an end to beaching, especially as Beijing has already prohibited the use of beaches for breaking up ships. On the mainland, dismantling of ships is limited to docksides in places like Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta where cranes can be used and vessels dismantled in more controlled conditions.

'Hong Kong shipowners have got to take the high road here,' Mr Puckett said. 'The days of cheap and dirty dumping have got to stop. The owners who are more responsible should look to the greener yards, get off the beaches and do it quickly.

'It is illegal to do this in China, so the double standard of having Chinese ships moving to other places in the world where they can do it on the backs of some of the poorest and most desperate labourers in the world is absolutely not appropriate.'

What is appropriate and what is pragmatic are not necessarily the same thing, however, as IMO secretary general Efthimios Mitropoulos made clear to delegates at this week's meeting before the appeal from the pressure groups to ban beaching was roundly rejected.

'I consider it incumbent on all of us to exercise prudence by balancing safety and environmental concerns with the commercial requirements of seaborne trade,' he said. 'We should be guided by pragmatism so that the operational efficiency, on which ship recycling facilities rely, is not unduly compromised. I am convinced that the draft convention before you has all the necessary ingredients to strike the right balance.'

The recycling of ships, in other words, is big business. This year, with the economic downturn meaning more older vessels are being taken out of service, some 1,000 ships are expected to be decommissioned and sent to shipyards to be broken up - around twice as many as last year.

If the new convention went so far as to ban beaching altogether, Mr Mitropoulos warned, there was a danger that it would not be supported by countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

'You might want to ask those countries with major ship-recycling industries whether they would adopt, or become party to, a convention that specially banned beaching,' he suggested. 'And then consider what would be the value of a convention to which those states were not party? That, I think, is very much at the heart of the matter.'

Under the convention, ships sent for recycling must carry an inventory of hazardous materials and be surveyed before recycling. Shipyards will be required to provide a recycling plan detailing how each ship will be stripped down.

As far as Mr Puckett and his fellow protesters are concerned, it has been a frustrating week.

'We feel like the child who points out that the emperor has no clothes. Everyone knows this is wrong, but we are the only ones who can state the obvious that it is not acceptable to use a beach. There is no way you can protect workers on a beach. You can't bring in ambulances or fire engines, you can't bring in cranes to lift the heavy materials to rescue people and you can't contain the contamination - it goes straight out to sea,' he said. 'This convention is going to put a green gloss over these business practices which really go back to another century. The idea that you can run ships onto an ocean beach and start breaking them open is just insane.'

For the family of Sultan Nasiruddin Molla, the political bickering in Hong Kong is little more than a faraway postscript to a life cut cruelly short. And on the oil-stained sands of Chittagong where Sultan met his death, bands of young workers continue to follow in his footsteps, wading through the sludge to seek out work that is brutal and life-threatening - but still desperately wanted.