There is a collision of views surrounding scrappage: the final voyage of the ships destined to be broken into smaller parts, crushed, reworked, re-used, recycled and possibly rejuvenated. To the casual observer the pleading tones of the NGOs looking to eradicate this practice on the beaches of Asia are wise words indeed; to the people who rely on their children, mothers, brothers, fathers and uncles clambering over metal leviathans, they are words falling on barren ground. Times are changing but the rush towards environmental and worker protections come with consequences that some refuse to face: telling people what is good for them works when there are alternatives. In the case of ship-breaking, the question is – what else can these people do to earn a living if pressure from outside reduces or remove their ways of generating money?
Before the rush to condemn the writer and tales of death and disease land on the desk, there is much to be looked at when it comes to NGO pressure to ‘clean up’ the world of ship-breaking. There can be no dispute between us on the issue of environmental damage and dangers to workers in bare feet, lacking correct PPE gear and trying to tear a ship apart with hammers and bare hands. Asbestos flying around like pollen; toxic chemicals swilling into the water around their feet and sheets of steel weighing more than a small car swaying precariously over the heads of young boys trying to help feed families – there is no argument on this. But what seems lacking in the complex world of NGO pressure is an answer to the question many of these workers ask? What do we do if the only source of income we have, no matter how dangerous it is, switches to Africa? Who will be paying us and feeding our families?
Bangladesh is one of the leading Asian landing destinations for ship breaking and along with India and Pakistan it has become an accepted way of life for many who depend on what the West would regard as meagre to poverty wages for gruelling and back-breaking work …. and it’s all the fault of the greedy ship owners who cause suffering to workers by sending their ships to be recycled on Asian beaches according to the NGOs. The IMO and EU have differing opinions on this issue and are acting in their own interests but neither are addressing the route problem. Not something we would condemn but still the question remains – what are the alternatives?
When piracy was at its peak (the modern version not Jack Sparrow or Blackbeard and his like) there was a gradual acceptance that the root cause in places like Somalia was the lack of opportunity, of work and of investment: the root cause is always the hardest to accept in these sorts of arguments. Look at the issue of migrants and the drownings in the Mediterranean; the root cause is the behaviour of the criminal gangs taking advantage of the poor governmental control of regions, poverty and the lack of investment in the economies they are fleeing. The migrants (for the most) are caught in the middle and the same could be said of the ship-breakers in Asia.
Let us return to the well-fed and knowledgeable Europeans and Americans who are railing against these practices and almost demanding an end to the running aground of ships in Asia and the ensuing work on them. They are quite right. The unsafe and toxic working environments need to be eradicated. There needs to be a tightening of the rules and regulations (more work for NGOs I fear) and definitely more outrage about the way these poor people are ‘forced’ to earn a living. But from those nice offices in Brussels and Boston, from those comfy desks in London and Paris, let us remember that in demanding nigh on the impossible for everyone, they are simply calling for these poor workers to be thrown overboard as the ships are rerouted to Africa or another part of the world. The hardest thing is to come up with a viable solution, an alternative that works not only for the system they want to change but also for the thousands of people behind the scenes who rely on the work to survive. Words simply don’t cut it when it comes to other people’s livelihoods: it is too easy to say “stop this” and feel smug about it.