16 February 2008

Premiere of 'Iron Eaters': Speech by the Ambassador of EC to Bangladesh

Premiere of Iron Eaters by Shaheen Dill-Riaz

Venue: Central Public Library, Dhaka,
Date: 15 February 2008

Address by H.E. Dr Stefan Frowein, Ambassador of European Commission to Bangladesh

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to have been invited to speak at the premiere of “Iron Eaters” in Bangladesh. This is a film which has, I understand, already met with significant success around the world and received several awards. Shaheen Dill-Riaz and his team are most deserving of this recognition, and I would like to congratulate them on their achievement. Not only have they produced a documentary of a very high artistic quality; they have also put the spotlight on an issue of burning relevance – the industry of shipbreaking and its economic, social and environmental ramifications.

I had the privilege of seeing “Iron Eaters” some time ago and it made a strong impression on me. If the evidence wasn’t right there on the screen it would be hard to imagine that huge ships are dismantled almost, as it were, by hand. The film tells of these migrant workers who, year after year, come to the scrap yards in Chittagong in a desperate search for livelihood. It is an unsentimental portrait of the long hours of hard work that they carry out, for meagre pay and at great risk of accident. Although many, they are powerless to demand better conditions. Yet at the same time the film gives an insight into the companionship among them, their sense of humour and personality, and their longing to return home to their villages in northern Bangladesh. More than anything, the courage of the workers – a courage borne out of desperation, but nevertheless – is striking. Not to speak of the recklessness of the enterprise itself, with men taking on vessels in solid steel, perhaps 20 metres high and weighing thousands of tonnes…

Indeed, ship breaking would be a fascinating industry were it not for the tragic conditions under which it takes place in Bangladesh and similar countries.

In the last few years, Bangladesh has become the world’s leading destination for ships that are to be scrapped at the end of their life. Ship recycling is an important industry for the country: it provides employment to more than 25,000 workers and is a major source of raw material. It is estimated that up to 90% of steel in Bangladesh is derived from ships, which comes to good use in sectors such as construction, and saves the country precious foreign exchange.

Clearly there are also advantages for the countries exporting vessels for scrapping. Shipbreaking is not a profitable industry in Europe, mainly due to the high labour costs compared to developing countries. But unavoidably, ships in Europe and elsewhere have a limited life span – around 30 years – after which they must be taken out of service. Ship recycling provides, in theory, an economically sensible and environmentally friendly solution to the after-life of vessels.

Acknowledging these benefits – real or potential – should not, however, make us turn a blind eye to the harsh realities of ship recycling as it actually takes place. Iron Eaters delivers a critical account especially of the industry’s social impact. It is a known fact that most workers in the scrap yards do not have employment contracts, health or accident insurance. They do not have proper equipment to protect them from accidents; indeed, as can be seen in the film, many of them do not even wear shoes, let alone helmets. Hundreds of workers are estimated to have died in accidents; many more contract irreversible disease from handling and inhaling toxic substances left on the ships.

In addition, shipbreaking causes environmental damage. Most vessels contain hazardous materials such as asbestos, oils and oil sludge, which are simply dumped into the water in the absence of appropriate reception facilities. The resulting pollution is damaging for vegetation and aquatic life in the surrounding areas. 

It is thus the case that shipbreaking, as currently conducted, runs against the idea of sustainable development. 
What are the solutions to this sad state of affairs? 
What could be done in order to retain the benefits of ship recycling while discarding the current, negative practices?

There certainly isn’t any miracle solution, but I would like to briefly share with you some of the European Commission’s thinking around this matter, which was published last year in a green paper, a consultative document, entitled “Better ship dismantling”.

The green paper discusses various measures which could contribute to higher environmental and health and safety standards in ship dismantling. One of these would be better enforcement of the EU ban on export of hazardous waste, ensuring that vessels are not sent abroad for dismantling unless they have been properly “cleaned” first of any toxic substances.

The green paper also underlines the need for binding international standards for ship dismantling. This would establish a level playing field, preventing a “race to the bottom” in terms of social and environmental conditions. In this regard, the European Commission supports actively the work towards a future international convention undertaken within the International Maritime Organisation. The convention could be ready for ratification in 2009 but it will take several years more before it could enter into force.

Another suggestion in the green paper is to scale up technical assistance to ship recycling countries in order to help raise industry standards and encourage better regulation. Needless to say, such assistance will only be effective if destination countries have the political will to enforce standards in local ship dismantling yards.

The green paper contains many other proposals – encouraging voluntary corporate responsibility, setting up a ship dismantling fund, establish a certification system, and so on – that could have a positive impact. Right now the European Commission is analysing the comments it has received on the green paper and will soon be setting out its proposals for further action.

As we know, public opinion drives public policy more effectively than anything else. In this regard, Iron Eaters can make an important contribution to increased discussion and awareness about ship dismantling.

Let us be clear about one thing: Bangladesh would certainly not like to be without this industry, which creates much needed jobs and income for development. But at the same time, I am sure you will agree, not least after seeing this film, increased efforts have to be made to safeguard the interests of workers and the environment. In the end it is a question of reconciling economics with social and environmental principles. I am optimistic that this can be done: Bangladesh can stay competitive as a destination for ship recycling while raising standards to an acceptable level.

Let me also assure you that the European Commission would like to do what we can to help Bangladesh in these efforts. We do acknowledge that we have a responsibility, not least since many of the ships being dismantled in Bangladesh originate in Europe.  I look forward to continued discussion – and concrete action – to address the situation in the shipbreaking industry.

Thank you for your attention.

Workers cutting propeller of a ship with hammers & chisels
Source: 16 February 2008