Who ends up on the scrapheap?

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The zeal with which some European-based NGOs go about their business is to be admired. When it comes to matters environmental or anything to do with human rights, you can be certain Europe will have something to say on such matters. In terms of championing what is right in these important fields, Europeans are often ahead of the game. But sometimes you get the feeling that ‘sticking to the letter of the law’ throws up more challenges more than just solving one crisis.

Scrapping ships is a dirty, dangerous in some cases and almost certainly an environmental concern when not handled by the right people, with the right equipment in the right places. The beaches of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are the graveyards of more than 800 ships destined for the proverbial scrapheap according to industry sources. The fight against these sites and the desire to see small children and vulnerable workers removed from the business is admirable: death and serious injuries are not unusual when you are working with hundreds of tons of metal and sharp objects, treacherous work surfaces and where safety equipment looks like just a better pair of sandals!

The European Union adopted the Ship Recycling Regulation on 20 November 2013 designed to the negative impacts linked to the recycling of ships flying the flag of Member States of the Union that is now coming into force. Now China has woken up to the effects of the shipbreaking industry and from the start of January 2019 they have added old ships to a growing list of prohibited imports. With a large trade in these ships to be scrapped making their final voyages to China for that purpose, this ban will certainly hit European ship owners.

Talk in the maritime world is more along the lines of where old ships can now be scrapped. The options have suddenly become limited and some in the sector believe the only way to balance the arguments is to press for improving existing facilities and operations. But it is a balance between the environmental concerns and the financial rewards from scrap steel that comes from the Asian recycling yards. To some this is the crux of the matter: there is more money to be made from scrapping ships in Asia than in accredited European recycling facilities.

One concern that rarely gets mentioned as much in this debate is the fate of those currently working in those Asian beaching yards. It is all about the safety aspect and environmental worries and little is said about jobs and the livelihoods of hundreds of people working for poor wages on these ships on those beaches. While it is easy to rally behind the calls for scrapping such beaching practices, we have to ask, where are these people going to find the money to care for their families if we just end these practices? This is a far-wider problem that touches on political and socio-economic planning. We should agree that better conditions are the right of every worker. We should be thinking of that rather than preening ourselves when another opportunity to work for a living is closed down in some far away land.

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