57 delegates from 18 countries met in Rotterdam, The Netherlands on 31 October and 1 November for the IndustriALL shipbuilding and shipbreaking action group.
The meeting was hosted by the Dutch affiliate of IndustriALL Global Union, FNV Metaal, and held aboard the SS Rotterdam, an ocean liner moored in Rotterdam harbour. Formerly flagship of the Holland America line, the SS Rotterdam has been converted into a hotel and meeting venue.
The meeting brought together activists from shipbuilding and -breaking unions to build solidarity over the lifespan of a ship. The shipbuilders come from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, UK, and USA.
Shipbreaking workers were represented by the Steel, Metal and Engineering Workers’ Federation of India, and the National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan.
IndustriALL sector director Kan Matsuzaki gave an overview of the industry. Overall, there has been a slump in shipbuilding since the 2008 financial crisis. Output has begun to pick up, but there is a shift in production from Europe to Asia.
There is also a slump in shipbreaking because of the steel crisis. However, there is a bulge of ships at sea now that will need to be broken in the future.
Many shipbuilding delegates spoke of the challenges of the industry response to the slump, which has included layoffs and casualization. Tae Jung Kim of the KMWU spoke about the difficulty in organizing irregular workers at Hyundai Heavy Industries, while Marry van der Stel of FNV Metaal stressed the exploitation of East European migrant workers in The Netherlands.
Reskilling and industrial redeployment are importand, said Thomas Søby of CO-industri in Denmark. When the Lindø yard closed, 3,000 jobs were lost. But many workers were retrained and redeployed, and now produce wind turbines in a new industrial park built on the site.
Thorsten Ludwig explained that in Germany, IG Metall had bargained for a 6 per cent wage increase along with a shorter working week, while Elspeth Hathaway of IndustriAll Europe spoke of the need for skills development. This point was reinforced by a plant visit to Royal IHC in Kinderdijk, a company that uses bespoke high tech product development to remain competitive.
Health and safety standards in the industry are outdated, said Caspar Edmonds of the ILO, and a committee of experts will meet in Geneva in January to develop a new Code of Practice.
1 November is the one year anniversary of the explosion at the Gadani shipbreaking yard in Pakistan, which killed 28 workers – just two days after they held a protest demanding better safety measures.
An international standard is necessary to make ship recycling safe and environmentally sustainable, and unions are campaigning for the implementation of the Hong Kong Convention - the International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships - developed by the UN shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization.
The Hong Kong Convention will come into force when it is ratified by 15 countries, representing 40 per cent of gross tonnage and 3 per cent of recycling facilities. Currently it has been ratified by 6 countries, with Turkey expected to ratify soon, representing 21 per cent of tonnage.
The Japanese government has provided support in improving conditions in shipyards, and India in particular has progressed well, with 29 yards now compliant with the Convention, and 31 in the process.
The delegations from India and Pakistan spoke about progress made in unionizing shipyards, though Bangladesh remains a real challenge, because sector or cluster wide organizing is not allowed, meaning each yard must be organized into a separate union.
Kan Matsuzaki said:
“This has been a challenging period in shipbuilding, but the industry should stay strong and we, the unions, will focus on sustainable policy to protect our jobs for the future.
"We need to strengthen our strong unions’ solidarity action to push for the ratification of the Hong Kong Convention, to secure the shipbreaking workers’ safety and jobs.”