Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh alone dismantle about 90 giant ships a year, mostly oil tankers, generating millions in revenue, employing tens of thousands, and providing a significant proportion of the iron and steel used by local industry. However, there is a dark side to the industry in which the workers must toil in extremely hazardous conditions that frequently lead to death or serious injury and which is tremendously harmful to the environment. In this essay, Naeem Mohaiemen asks the difficult questions, with graphic imagery of the industry provided by Robert Bailey.

In 1992, The Economist leaked a memo by World Bank chief economist Lawrence Summers, which discussed the economic rationale for "encouraging more migration of dirty industries" to Less Developed Countries (LDC): "The measurements of the costs of health-impairing pollution depend on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view, a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages."

The report immediately provoked outrage from environmental groups and the developing countries. Brazil's Secretary of Environment, Jose Lutzenburger, called it an example of "unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and arrogant ignorance" of economists. Summers quickly disavowed the memo, explaining that the remarks were meant to be an "ironic aside" to illustrate that free trade would not necessarily lead to environmental improvements for LDCs.

Whatever the memo's provenance and intention, Summers's prescriptions are being implemented -- not directly by the Bank, but through the logic of global markets. A prime example is the shipbreaking industry, which has migrated from Northern countries to South Asia, with 90 percent of the world's ships being dismantled in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Rusting hulks out at sea

The statistics are staggering in their long-term implications. There are approximately 45,000 ships in the world's seawaters. These include cargo ships, tankers, cruise ships, and military vessels.

Every four years, these carriers receive a sea-worthiness certificate, issued by the flag state of the ship. On average these ships have a 25-30 year lifespan, after which the cost of reinvestment to make them seaworthy is not profitable. Every year, about 700 ships (15-25 million deadweight tonnes) are sold via international brokers to be scrapped in one of the Asian yards. The exceptions are military ships, which are not sold through the international brokerage system.

Over the next few decades, the number of ships that will need to be de-commissioned will increase dramatically. The reasons are threefold: the glut of post-1980s built ships, most of which are nearing the end of their sailing life; the increase in container ships, which has reduced the use of general cargo ships; and new maritime regulations that require double hulls for tankers, making many existing tankers obsolete.

A majority of ships are built in South Korea and China, filling orders placed by Japan, the UK, the US, Norway, Singapore and Denmark. Until the 1970s, shipbreaking was done in the countries of origin, using heavy machinery on salvage decks. But increasing environmental regulations and labour costs resulted in the transfer of this work -- first to Korea and Taiwan, and then to South Asia after the Asian Tigers upgraded away from this work. Two decades ago, 79 countries engaged in some form of ship-recycling activity. Today, most of that work is completed in South Asia. Shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh alone dismantle about 90 giant ships every year, mostly oil tankers.

There is little doubt that this is risky work, and the ILO in particular has extensively documented the industry's dangers. The most obvious risk is from industrial accidents, especially explosions from leftover gas and fumes. Even if a ship is gas-free, the regular use of torches, saws and grinders is very risky because most workers do not have safety equipment.

More hotly debated is the level of toxins inside the ships. According to the ILO, material typically released during ship-scrapping includes asbestos, lead, arsenic, chromates and mercury. The shipping lines refuse to

Alang's troubles, Chittagong's gain

Today, developing countries compete against each other to offer the lowest wages and least regulations. When labour and environment activists target individual offenders, other countries rush in to lure away that business. Ironically, Bangladesh gained traction in shipbreaking precisely because activists were targeting the competition in India. In 1997, a series of investigative reports made India's massive Alang yards in Gujarat a symbol of "dirty ships."

It began with an investigation by a US newspaper into the large number of military vessels that were abandoned on the Baltimore docks. These ships were government-owned vessels that could not be sent overseas for scrapping because of a US ban on exporting PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), an organic pollutant found in hydraulic and electrical systems. Because the cost of dismantling the ships was prohibitive, the US firms that had been given the job had either gone bankrupt or abandoned the work. The reporters realised that commercial vessels carried similar toxins, but were not subject to the export ban. Eventually, the reporters followed the trail to Alang, which at the time was scrapping more than half of the world's ships.

The investigation resulted in a Pulitzer-prize winning report on Alang, portrayed as a dangerous work site with incredibly high levels of toxins. The story gained momentum because of Europe-wide interest, particularly in Holland where it became a national issue. In 1998, Greenpeace published its own report on Alang. The report made the explosive claim that there were approximately 365 deaths a year from accidents, which resulted in the slogan: "Every day one ship, every day one dead."

Experienced in running campaigns that create international symbols, Greenpeace targeted P&O Nedlloyd, an Anglo-Dutch cargo company that sold ships in the Asian market. Public protests outside P&O offices were followed by the company being caught in the act of painting over the name of one of its Asia-bound ships. These confrontations led to intervention at the highest policy levels. Shipbreaking was inserted into the meeting agendas of the European Union and the International Maritime Organization. A Netherlands-sponsored international shipbreaking conference opened with a fiery denunciation of the industry by the Dutch Minister of Transport. In the US, Representative George Miller said:

"The American people have been promised that the globalization of the economy and the liberalization of trade would not turn out to be a race to the bottom. In the shipbreaking business, Alang, India is about as far down as you can go."

The Alang yards were now under pressure to reform their operations. One key step was the requirement that all ships provide a gas-free certificate. In response, ship owners looked for countries with fewer requirements, sending many more ships to the Bangladesh yards. Western activism and policy, by focusing on Alang rather than calling for structural change, may have accelerated the "race to the bottom" that Representative Miller wanted to avoid.

Chasing ships

bangladeshIn its rush to enter world markets, Bangladesh has had a complicated history, both as a source for cheap labour and as a dumping ground for unregulated products. Past skirmishes included testing of "RU-486" abortion drugs, the herbal remedy Gripe Water, toxic milk imports from Russia, contaminated fertiliser from the US, and the arsenic-poisoning crisis linked to deep-water tubewells.

Activism around these issues tends to have a strident tone, but when it comes to cases with a linkage to industrialisation and trade, a more delicate dance is at play. The underlying fear is that too much human rights critique may result in loss of the business. The experience of the garments trade, where a global campaign may have accelerated the departure of some foreign buyers, is a perpetual spectre. There is also a common belief that a period of "dirty industrialisation" is essential for long-term development. Because shipbreaking is dangerous primarily to those employed by the yards, there is also little spillage into the consumer space that could create mass awareness of the issue.

In 2006, Bangladesh's shipbreaking business was finally forced out of the shadows because of a series of legal actions. Armed with Greenpeace's list of 50 toxic ships that were bound for scrapping, environmental activists started filing lawsuits against the Bangladesh government. Faced with a court order and intense media coverage, the government banned the asbestos-laden ship SS Norway (formerly SS France), which had been docked in Malaysian waters looking for a destination. In an illustration of the techniques the industry uses to avoid scrutiny, the ship even changed its name to Blue Lady in the middle of court proceedings. The government action marked a huge defeat for the shipbreaker, who had purchased the vessel for $13 million. The ship was sent to India after Bangladesh's rejection, where it was again blocked by legal action.

In an example of increased cooperation among activists, major European NGOs joined representatives from Bangladesh and India to form the NGO Platform on Shipbreaking. This coalition was instrumental in tracking ships like the SS Norway from Bangladesh to India.

Following this success, emboldened NGOs targeted two other ships from Greenpeace's list that were headed to Bangladesh -- the Mongolian flag carrier MV Teem (renamed from MV Lady Fatema to evade the list) and the Bahamian-registered Alfaship. During the same period, French President Jacques Chirac ordered another asbestos-lined ship, Clemenceau, to return from India. This came after high-level diplomatic wrangling and a French court's order to stop the transfer, in response to legal action by Greenpeace and anti-asbestos groups.

Iconic images and brutal realities

Many watch the debate over toxic ships with trepidation, fearing that activists will deprive them of a growing industry and critical revenue. Industrialists point to strong local demand for steel and claim that, without shipbreaking, industrial development will shrink. The business sector exerts pressure to maintain the status quo, including keeping out trade unions. To counter the harsh reputation of the yards, others portray the inventiveness, resilience and pride displayed by many of the shipbreakers. Because every part of the ship, down to toilet fixtures, is recycled and sold on the local market, supporters even call it a "100 percent green industry," and urge activists not to target the trade.

In recent media work around this issue, an implicit position has emerged that sometimes counter-balances the activist position. Journalist Roland Buerk's book Breaking Ships, spends most of its pages documenting the Chittagong yard work process in minute detail -- much less attention is paid to environmental issues. But one of Buerk's own photographs, showing a young worker covered in a mysterious fluorescent substance, hints at what may be missing in the text.

Considering photography's complicated history as a tool of icon building, images around this issue are in need of interrogation. Consider the Soviet fascination with industrialization, and the manner in which Rodchenko's photographs of Baltic Canal workers advanced the modernization agenda of the socialist state. On the other side of the soon-to-be cold war axis, the US Farm Security Administration's project on the American dustbowl obscured the brutal reality off camera.

Sebastiao Salgado, whose haunting photographs first brought attention to the Chittagong yards, became in philosopher Susan Sontag's words, "the principal target of a new campaign against the inauthenticity of the beautiful." Although Robert Bailey's photographs that accompany this text do not carry any mythologizing intent, there can always be audiences that use these images to rebuke activists.

When the Indian yards were being investigated, one resident asked journalist William Langewiesche:
"The question I want to ask the environmentalists is if you should want to die first of starvation or pollution."

It is a transparently inadequate binary, but one that is used to stymie reform conversations. New theoretical frameworks and practical solutions must be developed through debates on development, free markets and globalisation. The South Asian economies desperately need new industries, but the model of development-at-any-price make them vulnerable to health pandemics and labour disasters.

Developed nations need to take the primary steps: by guaranteeing that ships are not sent with toxic content, by forcing FOC tax havens to abide by international regulatory frameworks, and by enforcing the Basel ban on export of toxic waste. In the shipbreaking countries, calls for unionisation and safety standards have been resisted with the excuse of "staying competitive." Local activists need to continue pushing for reforms that will create sustainable development. The challenge is to keep competitive industries like shipbreaking in Bangladesh, while making them truly "100 percent green."

[This is an excerpt from an essay that is part of a collaboration between Robert Bailey and Naeem Mohaiemen, currently on display at Asia Society, New York., July 2006]

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