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Ship Breaking

By: Mae Bowen

Ship breaking is the demolition of ships once wear and tear has made general repair uneconomical. After a few decades, most ships are broken up into scrap metal. Until the late 20th century, ship breaking mainly occurred in industrialized nations like the US and the UK.  However, in more recent years, with increasing regulation in the West, the ship breaking industry has moved to where labor is cheap, environmental laws are still weak, and the need for work, and steel, is high.[1] Due to this trend, hazardous materials like asbestos and lead paint, which can cause cancer in those exposed, are polluting the work environment and surrounding communities of ship breaking yards. Today, around 90% of the world’s ship breaking takes place in Pakistan, Bangladesh and in India.[2]

Environmental and human rights groups are trying to call attention to the accompanying human and environmental risks from negligent shipbreaking procedures and the risk of turning developing countries, like Bangladesh, into the “West’s garbage dump.”[3] CBS News correspondent Daniel Schorn commented in a 60 Minutes special on ship breaking that “the workers toil in tough conditions. They have no unions, no safety equipment, and no training. About 50 are said to die in accidents each year; often in explosions set off by blowtorches deep inside the fume-filled holds.”[4]  Greenpeace delved further into the issue by looking more closely into shipbreaking in Bangladesh and India. “In Bangladesh, ship scrapping provides about eighty percent of the country’s steel needs and…employs directly an average of 30,000 workers and indirectly between 100,000 and 200,000.”[5] Many of these workers also lack access to basic necessities of work safety such as helmets and are continually exposed to toxic fumes. So, if they aren’t killed by accidents like explosions, they likely will die sooner or later from diseases, such as lung cancer, caused by prolonged exposure to high levels of toxins like asbestos and lead paint. Greenpeace aimed to tell the stories of some of these workers and their families, who know that the work is dangerous but also simply need the work. Amplifying the safety concerns surrounding these practices is the lack of media attention covering accidents, workers conditions, and the dangers of shipbreaking.

International institutions like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and the International Labour Organization (ILO) are among the groups attempting to combat the current abhorrent shipbreaking practices. The UNDP’s Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal (1989) aims to “protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects which may result from the generation, transboundary movement and management of hazardous wastes.”[6] The IMO is working on a mandatory global shipbreaking regime and ship recycling fund, while the ILO has developed guidelines for use in making national labor policy.[7]  Since Greenpeace did their initial observations of ship breaking in the late 90’s, not much has changed on the ground. Though there has been much discussion at the international level, little has been done to effectively improve working conditions or environmental stewardship in the industry. There is evident need to connect what is happening at an international level to what is happening on the ground to these individuals.

When looking at issues in international environmental policy, such as pollution havens and unequal distribution of pollution to developing nations, it is obvious that there is no easy answer to equalizing the effects of environmental harm. Ship breaking is an environmental issue of particular importance as it affects both the environment and human beings. These workers are placed in harm’s way on a daily basis by a practice based on profit margins. The moral culpability of the responsible developed nations cannot be denied.

In an article looking at a case study of shipbreaking in Alang–Sosiya in India, the issue is described as an “ecological distribution conflict” or an “unequal distribution of benefits and burdens, due to an international and national uneven distribution of power.”[8] These ships are utilized by developed countries for trade and commerce, increasing their wealth and power to consume, while developing nations bear the burden of breaking them, all while running the risk of being killed and degrading their environments so much so that other industries (such as fishing and agriculture) suffer.[9]  Thus, the developed countries that benefit from current practices have no incentive to make a change. In particular, the human rights abuses that shipbreaking manifests in developing countries need to be taken more seriously by the international community, so that the developed nations responsible will feel adequate pressure to do something about it. Telling research on this issue needs to be heard loud and clear, across the developed world, to make it known that current ship breaking practices are not acceptable. The United Nations and other responsible global institutions need to work toward implementing an enforceable regime that clarifies the responsibilities of parties from the shipbuilder to the breaker, ensures that the countries profiting from the use of these ships be held responsible for the proper handling of hazardous wastes from their destruction, and guarantee that international standards in working conditions are upheld in ship breaking yards.

Mae Bowen is a junior in the college studying political science and environmental sciences. She is currently studying abroad in Athens, Greece and interning with the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa with the State Department's Virtual Student Foreign Service. She has previously interned with Organizing for America, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and The Carter Center. Her academic interests include international and U.S. environmental policy, marine conservation, and the intersections of politics and the media. After graduating in 2016, Mae plans to attend law school and concentrate in environmental law before pursuing a career in public service.


[1] The Center for Land Use Interpretation, “American Ship Breaking,” accessed on September 21, 2014. http://www.clui.org/newsletter/spring-2010/american-ship-breaking

[2] Ibid.

[3] Daniel Schorn, CBS News 60 Minutes, “The Ship Breakers of Bangladesh,” accessed on September 21, 2014. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-ship-breakers-of-bangladesh/

[4] Ibid., p. 2.

[5] Greenpeace, “End of Life Ships: The Human Cost of Breaking Ships,” p.15, accessed on September 21, 2014. http://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/shipbreaking2005a.pdf

[6] Ibid., p. 43.

[7] Ibid., p. 43.

[8] Federico Demaria, “Shipbreaking at Alang–Sosiya (India): An ecological distribution conflict,” Ecological Economics, Vol. 70, Issue 2, p.250-260.

[9] Ibid.

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