31 October 2009

Crimes of The Corporatocracy:

Maybe it all started back in 1772, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe first began to work on the tragedy of Faust, the supposedly brilliant scholar who sold his soul to the devil for a chance to relive his youth. Even if one considers the modern equivalent -- "I made him an offer he couldn't refuse" -- there is little doubt that, in games of power, one party plans to dominate another by hook or by crook.

In his latest documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, filmmaker Michael Moore doesn't hesitate to describe capitalism as inherently evil. As he interviews Americans whose lives have been ruined by predatory lending, foreclosures, or simply being powerless pawns in the banking industry's multinational gambling schemes, audiences see human faces put on the victims of globalization.

While microcredit programs like Kiva have helped many to break out of poverty and become successful entrepreneurs, appealing to people's baser instincts by tempting them with mortgages they can't afford, credit default swaps, or "irrationally exuberant" lines of credit, is an easy way to trap consumers in a spiral of debt. Watch carefully as John Hodgeman schools Jon Stewart in the ways of Wall Street.

Whether one chooses to think in terms of macroeconomics or microeconomics, the use of debt as a financial weapon is becoming clearer in terms of how we perceive the global economy. Whereas 2003's The Corporation did a superb job of showing the ruthlessness with which corporate interests are willing to destroy lives in their pursuit of profits, two new documentaries do a superb job of showing how financial power is used to put the squeeze on impoverished workers as well as political leaders.

Soon to be screened at the Seventh Annual 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival is a documentary of deceptive visual beauty. I was particularly interested in seeing Iron Eaters because India and Bangladesh have become the final destinations for so many ocean liners and old ships whose final voyages deliver them into the hands of the ship breakers who sell their steel for scrap.

Shaheen Dill-Riaz
It is to writer/director Shaheen Rill-Diaz's great credit that his film not only exposes the brutal effects of capitalism on some of Bangladesh's poorest workers but that, despite exposing such financial exploitation, so much of his footage is a gorgeous visual treat.

The beaches of Chittagong in the Bay of Bengal are where many container ships and oil tankers are broken down by Bangladeshi iron workers who have been forced from their homelands in the north during seasonal floods. Their work requires them to wade through mud that reaches as high as their calves as they pull the heavy cables that will drag the ships closer to the beach. 

Often working under conditions that would make an OSHA inspector vomit with disgust, they are sometimes required to carry iron plate on their shoulders when it is still hot from the application of blow torches. Known as the Lohakhor (iron eaters), the men work long, unforgiving hours from which some never recover.

Kholil and Gadu are two peasants from northern Bangladesh who recruit many of their relatives to work for Chittagong's PHP (Peace, Happiness, and Prosperity) Group when the flooding from the rainy season causes famine in the north. Although they are lured to Chittagong with advance payments and promises of easy loans, by the time they leave, they may not even have enough money for the trip home. Shaheen Dill-Riaz lived with the workers for  5 months in 2005 while filming them at work.

As he explains:

"I've known the place where the ships are dismantled since I was a child. It's not far from my home village. We had heard lots of stories about the huge ships and the serious industrial accidents, but those of us on the outside knew next to nothing about the real working conditions in the yards because the workers themselves never talked about what they experienced there. I wanted to know who these people are, who come to us in the south and work for months on starvation wages.

Getting shooting permission was hard enough. The most important point I had to get across to those in charge was that I was not making a film about environmental pollution (that was their biggest worry). While we were filming, we were faced with the same problems the workers themselves had. At the end of the day, we were observing extremely difficult, and even life-threatening working conditions. We stood barefoot with the workers in the mud, balanced on rotting beams, and went down into the extremely dangerous innards of the ships. I still can't understand to this day why nothing happened to us. Were we really so careful? Or were we just simply lucky."

Instead of forcing workers into debt, those responsible should admit that there is something essentially wrong here. Anyone who has seen these people at work knows that they are paid far too little and that the dangers they face every day could easily be avoided. There are technical solutions that could reduce the life-threatening risks the workers are exposed to -- and there are enough experts who have already approached the yard owners with suggestions for improvement, but these are continually ignored.

We have all obviously resigned ourselves to the fact that our lives are determined by the stock exchanges. So we shouldn't be surprised by the results. For me, Ironeaters shows the consequences of this global attitude.

With this film I wanted to immerse myself in a world which had been closed to me for a very long time. I was curious and I had expected to discover something new. The unbelievable working conditions that the film shows were not the greatest surprise for me but rather the administrative structure, which drives the people into a deadly debt trap. Even more appalling for me was the realization that the attitude of the exploitative system is founded on the basic elements of the economic system in which we all live. Ironeaters shows just how far this can go."

Desperate to earn money with which to support their families between rice harvests, these men work for a pittance. Because they are forced to purchase their food from grocery stores that cooperating with the shipyard owners (who happily extend their workers' credit to a point where the laborers are performing backbreaking work for almost no income), these men become trapped in a stifling debt spiral.

Don't be fooled by some of the arresting images or moments of exquisite cinematography. Despite the protests of the shipbreaker's management (who are noticeably well fed and are never seen doing any physical labor), this depiction of capitalism at work is not the slightest bit pretty.

Source: My Cultural Landscape. By George Heymont. 31 October 2009

26 October 2009

Convenient Airbrushing of a Ghost from the Ghost Fleet:

Eco-warriors claim success in getting the Suisun Bay fleet cleaned up, but the Higgins seems to have vanished

MARAD proudly declared this week that at least 25 ships of the Suisun Bay reserve fleet, popularly known as the ghost fleet, will be cleaned up in a San Francisco yard and then towed to Brownsville to be broken up. Two cargo ships – subject to different environmental regulations from naval vessels under the military's control – will be the first to go to the scrap yard.

USGS aerial photo montage of "nests" of anchored USNR ships at the National Defense Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay, California. Source:NASA world wind
Huge cheers went up from the environmental community and everyone patted themselves on the back. "This is definitely big," Bruce Wolfe, executive officer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, has been quoted as saying. "This is the start."

Others in the crowd are saying "Not so fast" and are asking: "Excuse me, but what about the Andrew Higgins?" Its name and fate have been airbrushed from public discussion as though it never existed.

Bruce Wolfe was completely in the dark about the ship when I asked him the same question a few weeks ago in another guise.

As it turns out, the Higgins is ceasing to exist, as you read these words. The ship was towed out of San Francisco Bay about three weeks ago, with no clean up or removal of toxic paints or waste, and taken straight to Galveston before starting life under a new name with Chile's navy.

Just why there has been no mention of the vessel or its fate is something of a mystery. But, industry insiders are speculating that the feds' sudden new desire to go public about the fleet is partly due to a mix of commercial and political motives – good scrap metal contracts have been signed and politically sensitive buyers are being avoided.

The Obama administration would probably have been only too pleased to cancel the Chile deal, but a contract is a contract and nothing could be done without risking litigation and public disclosure of negotiations that are best kept quiet.

Sadly, maritime news seems to be slipping into the same habit of being selective with its facts as the corporate financial and commercial sectors.

At Charleston, Maersk has changed its mind about pulling out and is using a dedicated space in a smaller terminal. Originally, it wanted to leave because the union refused to countenance the use of a non-union terminal – and the new arrangement is clearly a compromise because less union labor will be employed.

Maersk has been fulsome in praising a whole slew of politicians and regional officials but left out any mention of the trade union. The industry was itching for some reference, however brief and bald, to the union – which would have left no one in any doubt about the real situation.

Nostalgia for the past, when blunt speaking was the norm and prevented misunderstanding, is seen as being replaced by the needs of public relations.

Source: Maritime Professional. By Martin Rushmere. 26 October 2009

22 October 2009

West Coast Mothball Fleet Shrinking Soon:

It appears that the old MARAD mothball fleet otherwise known as the Suisun Bay Ghost Fleet near Benicia California may soon be drastically shrinking, with many old warships and auxiliary vessels heading to scrappers in Texas. Many of the ships in the mothball fleet have significant historical value, including several Victory ships and the battleship USS Iowa. Nevertheless, most bay area and California state politicians want the ships out of Suisun Bay sooner rather than later. 

The San Francisco Chronicle brings us the whole story:

A fleet of old, rotting warships shedding toxic paint into the water near San Francisco Bay will be cleaned up and recycled under a new plan announced by federal officials Thursday.

Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari said the government has already awarded contracts to dispose of two World War II-era cargo ships from the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet.

The group of more than 70 mostly obsolete vessels in Suisun Bay has been at the center of a nearly three-year deadlock between state water regulators and the federal government, which manages the fleet.

Porcari said the ships will be cleaned in dry-dock — not in the bay — alleviating state officials’ concerns about additional water pollution.

“This is definitely big,” said Bruce Wolfe, executive officer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. “This is the start.”

A congressional order set a 2006 deadline to scrap more than 50 ships in the fleet, but a regulatory quagmire has kept them in place.

A lack of disposal operations on the West Coast means the ships must be towed to Texas to be broken apart. Under federal law, the ships must be cleaned of invasive species clinging to their hulls before they can enter the ocean.

California officials fought a Bush administration plan to clean the ships where they were anchored, arguing that the process would cause paint laden with heavy metals to flake off into the bay. They also filed suit against the federal government claiming the paint flaking off the ships as they idle put the fleet in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

Putting the ships in dry-dock in San Francisco lifts worries about the cleanup causing further pollution, Wolfe said. But he said the state would continue to press its suit until a settlement or court order puts legal force behind the government’s commitment to get rid of all ships awaiting disposal.

Environmentalists have long criticized the U.S. Maritime Administration for the delays in removing the ships. They said the government must act aggressively to get rid of the rest.

“MARAD has not yet committed to a concrete and enforceable timetable for cleaning and removing the remaining ships,” said Michael Wall, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Of the 57 ships slated for the scrap heap, Porcari said the 25 most decrepit vessels would be disposed first. The process would take several years owing to the limited space in dry-dock facilities, he said.

Aerial shot of the Suisun Bay Mothball Fleet (Telstar Logistics/Flickr)
When steel prices were high, recyclers would pay for the rights to dispose of the ships in exchange for the steel they contain. In today’s economy, the government is paying more than $2 million to a Brownsville, Texas, company to dismantle them.

The dry-docking will cost the government another $500,000 per ship.

“It is worth it in environmental terms to do it the right way,” Porcari said.

The country’s three major reserve fleets, including one in Beaumont, Texas, and another near Newport News, Va., were once maintained to return to active duty in case of war or disaster. Over time, many ships fell into disrepair and became a financial and environmental burden.

In Suisun Bay, the aging hulks tied together in rows have become a landmark visible from a heavily traveled commuter bridge. They are known together as the “ghost fleet” or the “mothball fleet.”

The first two ships slated for dry-docking in coming months are the Earlham Victory and the Pan American Victory, built in nearby Richmond in 1945. The Victory ships mainly transported cargo and troops during World War II.

Talks are under way with a nonprofit group to turn the fleet’s best known member, the battleship USS Iowa, into a museum, Porcari said.

Source: The Maritime Blog. 22 October 2009

15 October 2009

Bangladesh shipbreaking: 1 more dies in accident

One more worker of a shipbreaking yard died as an iron plate fell on him at Bhatiari in Sitakunda yesterday afternoon.

The deceased Jahangir Alam, 28, son of Md Aziz Miah of Laxmanpur at Badarganj in Rangpur, was a worker of Habib Steel Ship Breaking Yard.

Police said the accident occurred around 12:30pm when Jahangir was resting beside an iron plate kept against a wall, which fell on him leaving the man seriously injured.

Jahangir was rushed to the Chittagong Medical College Hospital around 2:00pm where the doctors declared him dead.

Officer-in-charge of Sitakunda Police Station Md Nazrul Islam confirmed the incident and said police were sent to the spot.

With yesterday's death, seven workers met tragic death at three shipbreaking yards in Sitakunda since Thursday [October 8].

Meanwhile, the death toll of shipbreaking workers rose to 16 in the last ten months.

Source: The Daily Star. 15 October 2009.

14 October 2009

3 shipbreaking workers killed at Sitakunda :

Chittagong, Oct 13: Three workers of a shipbreaking yard were killed in a cylinder blast at Sitakunda shipbreaking yard today.

Sitakunda police said, a gas cylinder suddenly blasted off with a shuddering noise, killing 2 workers on the spot and severely wounding another at about 11:00 am in the Pakija Ship Breaking Yard at Baroawlia of Sitakunda.

Those died on the spot were Emran Hossain (25) and Mamun (17). The critically injured worker Nasir died under treatment at a local clinic in the afternoon.

Source: The Financial Express. 14 October 2009

09 October 2009

Three killed at Chittagong shipbreaking yard:

Chittagong, Oct 8: Three workers were killed due to fall of a heavy steel-plate on them while working at Crystal Ship Breaking Yard at Shitalpur under Sitakunda in Chittagong Thursday.

The victims are Nasir (28) and Nahid (24) of Anwara, Chittagong, and Hazrat Ali (25) of Narsingdi.

Sitakunda police said the workers were crushed under the heavy plate at 10 am, and died on the spot. Police recovered the bodies and sent them to the morgue of Chittagong Medical College Hospital.

Source: The Financial Express. 9 October 2009