29 September 2007

Asbestos in the Ship-breaking industry of Bangladesh: Action for Ban

Bangladesh is one of the countries in Asia which has been actively involved in commercial ship-breaking for more than two decades. The ship graveyard at Shitakundha, Chittagong is the only ‘iron mine’ of the land. Bangladesh purchases on average 180-250 old ships a year for scrapping. At present, the number of active ship-breaking yards is 30 and around 30,000 workers are directly and around 50,000 indirectly employed in those yards.

Key reasons for establishment of the ship-breaking industry at Shitakunda area are: the natural grounding facility, low financial investment required for human resources and for machinery to operate the business, high demand for low-cost raw materials for re-rolling mills (mills that produce iron bars), cheap labour, low enforcement of legislation related to the business, isolation from the conscious public eye and weak monitoring infrastructure of government agencies. In reality, the ship-scrapping yards at Shitakunda operate by self-made rules of the yard and company owners.

The work in the ship-breaking yards is mostly labour-intensive and 100% contract-based. There is no formal worker-management relationship, job security or social safety-net schemes for them. 98% of the labour in scrapping yards are illiterate and lack formal training; and 100% of them are unorganised. Occupational accidents, injury and deaths are very frequent and normal events there.

No available data or reports exist on workers health in ship-breaking industries in the region, more specifically in Bangladesh. This indicate that there is no, and there never has been any, systematic monitoring structure of health among workers in ship-scrapping yards in our region.

Workers receive potential negative health impacts from traditional working procedures adopted in the scrapping yards such as:
• torch cutting without protection (eye and skin injuries)
• heavy lifting (wear and tear, back injuries)
• noise (hearing defects)
and from the exposure to hazardous substances such as:
• asbestos
• chemicals (PCS, PCV, PAH, Tin-organic compounds oils)
• heavy metals
• fumes (dust, fume/gas components; dioxines, isocyanates, sulphur, etc.)

Asbestos-containing materials (ACM) are found in the thermal system insulation and on surfacing materials. When ACM deteriorates or is disturbed, asbestos breaks up into very fine fibers that can be suspended in the air for long periods and possibly inhaled by workers and operators at the facility or by people living near by the scrapping yards. The most dangerous asbestos fibers are too small to be visible. Once they are inhaled, the fibers can remain and accumulate in the lung. Breathing high levels of asbestos fibers can lead to an increased risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma (a cancer of the chest and abdominal linings), and asbestosis (irreversible lung scarring that can be fatal). The risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma increases with the level of exposure. Symptoms of these diseases do not show up until many years after exposure. Most people with asbestos-related diseases have been exposed to elevated concentrations in connection with their work.

Asbestos removed from a ship is still not necessarily regulated as hazardous waste in Bangladesh and elsewhere. In fact, in Bangladesh and some other countries asbestos is recovered by manual crushing and then re-custed, or-re-formed, for re-use.

The potential health impacts associated with the use of asbestos are of such a severe nature that compulsory minimum precautions are necessary. This includes worker education/capacity-building training and awareness in the ship-breaking yards on the negative effects of asbestos, protection of workers when extracting asbestos from vessels, a ban on the re-use of asbestos, the securing of the disposal of asbestos and measures preventing asbestos from re-entering the market from scrapyards.

Most of the ordinary workers in the ship-breaking industry in the Shitakunda area of Chittagong do not have any minimum knowledge about asbestos exposure and its consequence. Rather, the employer of the ship-breaking yard strongly insists that asbestos is not dangerous to the health. Even the labour inspectors of the government have very little knowledge of the asbestos issue.

There is no data about the number of victimized workers in ship-breaking industry exposed to asbestos while at work in last 35 years. The Labour Law 2006 of Bangladesh has declared ‘Asbestosis’ as a listed occupational disease. But due to the absence of trade union organization for workers and invisible labour inspection at the yard level, a decent work scenario is completely absent and it is very essential to develop a social dialogue mechanism in the ship-breaking industry to change this long-existing negative situation.

Growing Ban Asbestos Movement in Bangladesh:

Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE) is currently implementing an action project titled as Awareness Raising Project on Asbestos in Ship-breaking Industry of Bangladesh since July 2006 with the support of Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging (FNV) in Chittagong district of Bangladesh as part of its mission to achieve a ban on asbestos in Bangladesh through a collective stakeholders initiative.

The objectives of the project are to create asbestos awareness among workers in the ship-breaking industry; to strengthen the local voice of the asbestos victim; to develop trade union organization by workers’ initiative; to improve the health and safety situation, and the status of workers rights in this sector for the benefit of the workers, local community and the labour movement. Eight major national trade union centres of Bangladesh are the key beneficiaries of this particular project. In the meantime the project has been able to train up 40 workplace trainers and organizers to carry out the grass-root workers education and asbestos sensitization programme. Furthermore a local union network for the ship-breaking industry has been established to strengthen organizing and asbestos awareness actions at the yard level.

The implementing project will ultimately contribute towards strengthening the growing ‘ban asbestos’ movement in Bangladesh and honing international voices and actions for a Global Ban on Asbestos.

Source: Asia Monitor Resource Centre. 28 September 2007

20 September 2007

The 'Iron Eaters' of Bangladesh:

Iron Eaters of Bangladesh
EDITOR'S NOTE-The documentary "Iron Eaters" presents the tough reality of the shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh. Ernst had a look at Shaheen Dill-Rriaz' award-winning film.

The leviathans of the seas rise majestically from the sand of a beach in the south of Bangladesh. Old oil tankers and container ships await their slaughter-unwanted waste of the "First World." In the cutaway wrecks echo the deafening sound of hammers and the calls of the welders far across the sand. Bit by bit, the old ships are broken up.

Between the ocean liners, Kholil and his men look like ants. They carry a thick iron rope on their shoulders across the broad beach to one of the ships. "What's up over there? Pull, don't fall asleep," shouts a foreman. Under the weight of the rope, their bodies sway to and fro, sinking knee-deep into the mud.

Poster of 'Iron Eaters'
Once at the ship, they fasten the rope to one of the huge pieces of metal, which is then pulled to the shipyard. If the rope breaks, it can easily cut off a man's leg or even kill him.

Little is known about the work in the shipbreaking industry in India, China and Bangladesh. Trade unionists and the media are unwelcome here. Shaheen Dill-Riaz's 85-minute documentary "Iron Eaters" is the first ever portrait of one of these shipyards.

He spent four months filming at the "Peace, Happiness and Prosperity" shipyard in the port town of Chittagong. It took him a lot of persuasion, says Dill-Riaz (38). "We started filming under strict conditions."

The filmmaker remembers the old ships from his childhood in the south of Bangladesh. Later, in 1995, Dill-Riaz went to Germany to study as a cameraman. "Iron Eaters" is his third documentary about his home country. "My great advantage is that I'm not just from Bangladesh and not just from Germany or Western Europe. I'm somewhere in between."

The ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh has been growing since the 1960s, and now supports three million people. Every year, the shipyard owners buy up ships for several hundred million US dollars. The iron from the ships is mainly sold to the construction industry. About sixty percent of shipbreaking around the world now takes place in the shipyards of Bangladesh.

The coast is ideal for the industry: the deep water of the sea gives way suddenly to shallow beaches, so the ships run aground late. "The beach is a gift from God," we are told in the film. But the real "gift" is the cheap labor.

For example Kholil: he's been coming to the shipyard for 15 years, bringing men and boys from his village with him. Young Riazur for instance, who has to feed his entire family. Or Ershadul, who has lost his land to erosion. The poverty in the villages drives these people south. And every time they return home with next to nothing-just silent rage, often tricked out of their pay.

Gradually, the dense and intensive film exposes a system of exploitation and a hierarchy that nobody dares to shake up. "That's what the whole film is based on," says Dill-Riaz. The rope-carriers from the north are the "idiots", even poorer than the rest. They do the hardest physical work for 70 cents a day.

The same goes for the sheet-carriers. Eight or ten men carry iron sheets on their shoulders to be transported by truck. Just cut out of the ships, the edges are still red-hot. But time is money. Faces transfigured by pain, the men go about their work with even steps, like pall-bearers.

All the other men at the shipyard come from the south. Especially the foremen and the contractors, who take a share of the profit-and of course the shipyard owner. The land on which the shipyard now stands once belonged to the contractors. They supervise the workers and pay the wages.
The rope-carriers spent their advance long ago. They run up high bills for food with the local traders-relatives of the contractors. In the meantime, the rice harvest is approaching in their villages and their wives need their help. But they don't get paid.

"If I gave them their money they'd all run away and I'd have to close down the shipyard," says one of the contractors. The situation comes to a head; the men are desperate and angry. They tell Kholil to get them their wages at last, they want to go home. But Kholil backs down under pressure in the office, swallows his rage and lets the contractor get away with it. What can he do?

There are people at the top and people at the bottom, there are winners and losers. "But if the economy remains the priority and not social balance, life in Bangladesh won't be tolerable for much longer. Hunger and poverty are too powerful," says Dill-Riaz. The rope-carriers go home without a penny of their wages.

And they'll be back: Kholil, Riazur, Ershadul and all the others. Soon after filming, the fields in the north of Bangladesh were flooded again. Hunger broke out. Poverty has the people firmly under its control.

Source: The Star. By Sonja Ernst. 20 September 2007

11 September 2007

Indian court clears 'toxic' ship Blue Lady:

The Blue Lady was once the pride of France seen at Alang beach
A former ocean liner can be broken up in India despite concerns it contains toxic waste, the Supreme Court says.

The judgement came after experts were asked to decide if it was safe to scrap the Blue Lady at the giant breaking yard at Alang in western Gujarat state.

Environmentalists say the Blue Lady, formerly the SS France and then the SS Norway, contains tonnes of toxic waste.

In June 2006, the court allowed the vessel to enter Indian waters but said it must stay anchored off the coast.

Bangladesh banned the vessel from its waters in February 2006.

'Not safe'

Tuesday's ruling follows a year of controversy over the fate of the ship.

Campaigners say dismantling should not be allowed at Alang
The Supreme Court judges said their decision was based on the report submitted by the expert committee set up to decide whether it was safe to dismantle the liner.

"Since the court has accepted the technical expert committee report, we permit the Blue Lady to be dismantled," said Supreme Court judge SH Kapadia, Reuters news agency reports.

Details of the order were not immediately available.

The Indian Platform on Shipbreaking, an alliance of groups including Greenpeace and the Ban Asbestos Network, had lobbied for the ship not to be broken up.

Environmental groups say the 11-storey, 315-metre-long, liner contains 1,200 tonnes of asbestos and other toxic materials.

"We are very disappointed," Madhumita Dutta of Ban Asbestos Network told the BBC.

"Last week, the Supreme Court said if a contaminated ship comes to India, it should be sent back. It's been proved beyond doubt that Blue Lady contains all sorts of toxic material. How can the court allow it to be dismantled?" she asked.

The alliance says Indian yards lack the technology to deal with such waste and workers will be exposed to unacceptable risk.

Last year, a study commissioned by the government confirmed that one in six workers at the Alang ship yards showed signs of asbestos poisoning.

Hotel or museum

The Blue Lady, now owned by an Indian firm, was once the pride of the French shipping industry when it was the SS France.

Artist Salvador Dali and pop star David Bowie were among its celebrity passengers.

Ship-lovers and ecologists alike have battled to prevent the vessel from being scrapped.

There was a proposal to convert the liner into a floating hotel. Campaigners in the France Liner Association want to see it turned into a museum.

Alang, known as the graveyard of ships, has been the last port of call for countless ships from around the world. Thousands of workers take apart huge liners, past their prime, with their hands and very basic tools.

Last year, the French government bowed to pressure and recalled the decommissioned aircraft carrier Clemenceau while it was en route to Alang.

The Alang Shipbreaking Association has in the past denied charges of asbestos poisoning.

The Gujarat Maritime Board, which administers the yards, says the workers are provided with equipment and adequate training to ensure their safety.

Source: BBC. 11 September 2007

10 September 2007

MarAd to Remove 100th Obsolete Ship:

The Maritime Administration has completed arrangements for the removal and disposal of the 100th antiquated ship from government storage since the ship disposal program 1st received Congressional appropriations in Fiscal Year 2001.

The Dutton was originally constructed in 1945 as the Tuskegee Victory, one of 534 Victory ships constructed by the Maritime Commission during World War II. The Victory ships were built and deployed in the later stages of the war, operated for a brief period after the war, then laid up for several years. In 1958, the Dutton was converted from a supply vessel to an oceanographic survey vessel supporting America's Polaris Fleet of submarines. It served well into the 1980s and was decommissioned in 1988. The contract for the Dutton is the 100th ship disposal contract negotiated in the current disposal program.

The agency has awarded the ship disposal contract to All Star Metals, Inc., to remove the World War II-era ship Dutton from the agency's Beaumont Reserve Fleet in Texas and for the aging vessel's subsequent dismantling in Brownsville, Texas. The total value of the contract award is $1,078,000.

Source: Marine Link Monday, 10 September 2007

USNS Dutton


General characteristics:

Displacement: 4,420 tons (light) 13,050 tons (full)
Length: 455 ft (139 m)
Beam: 62 ft (19 m)
Draft: 23 ft (7.0 m)
Speed: 16 knots


Name: USNS Dutton (T-AGS-22)
Namesake: Benjamin Dutton, Jr.
Ordered: As victory ship SS Tuskegee Victory
Laid down: 1945-02-16
In service: 1 November 1958
Struck: 14 February 1980
Identification: Hull number 682, type VC2-S-AP3
Fate: to be scrapped soon