Jump to main content
IndustriALL logotype

SPECIAL REPORT: Cleaning up shipbreaking the world’s most dangerous job

15 December, 2015Workers in this industry face dangerous and precarious working conditions, with very little training, safety equipment and medical services, and they receive poverty wages. IndustriALL Global Union is campaigning to support organizing at the South Asia yards and is pushing governments in countries with major shipping industries to take responsibility for workers’ safety.

In an environment where there are often toxic chemicals, asbestos, and oil, workers use gas blowtorches and sledgehammers to dismantle the ship in a process that takes six to eight months, and up to a year for big tankers. Moving cranes, falling steel plates, gas explosions and metal coils snapping are all constant risks at the yards. Twelve-hour days are the norm and wages are as low as US$2 a day.

While official figures are unknown, unions in the region expect that hundreds are killed or seriously injured every year at work in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. In Bangladesh, the real figure could be 20 times higher than what is reported, according to the unions and NGOs.

The world’s ships are built at sophisticated yards in the developed world. After an average of 25-30 years, maintenance becomes expensive and they are sold for scrap. Sold either directly to the ship recycling companies or via a broker in Singapore or Dubai, more than 70 per cent of the ships make their final journey to beaches in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan.

At the ship graveyards in those three countries, workers first strip the vessels of all reusable parts, feeding a downstream industry that sells components such as engines, fridges, ladders and gas canisters through the region.

Then the process of dissecting the enormous ocean liners begins. Around 80 per cent of shipbreaking profit is made from selling steel, which is cut by hand in a labour intensive process.

Around 1,000 ships over 100 grosstonnage are broken each year

Where ships were broken/recycled in 2014:

> India 29.8 per cent

> Bangladesh 24.2 per cent

> China 21.9 per cent

> Pakistan 18 per cent

The dangerous job is done by migrant workers, young men from poor rural areas of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. Most shipbreaking workers have never seen the sea before they are hired by labour brokers who transport them from their villages to the shipyards. Living in very basic accommodation next to the yards, normally without clean drinking water or proper sanitation, the workers will often never visit the local city.

Bangladeshi shipbreaking union leader Nazim Uddin says:

"Without a voice in the workplace, daily abuses go unchallenged. Shipbreaking workers have miserable conditions. Workers are paid daily; no work, no pay. They receive no paid leave at all, no bonus, no gratuity, and have no job guarantee."

"Eight workers have been killed here in the last two months. Employers pay no compensation to the killed workers’ families. The High Court rules that each killed worker’s family should be compensated 500,000 Taka (US$6,400), but employers do not respect this."

Organizing is key

Trade union organizing in these conditions is tough but vital. With IndustriALL support, Indian affiliate SMEFI has organized the largest shipbreaking yard in the world, Alang. While IndustriALL affiliates are present in the Bangladesh and Pakistan yards, union density there is very low.

V. V. Rane, Vice-Chair of the sector and leader of the world’s biggest shipbreaking union in Mumbai and Alang, India, says:

“The Chittagong shipbreaking yards look like Alang did before we organized the workers there. We stand with the shipbreaking workers in Bangladesh.”

The successful unionization of Indian ship breakers was first made possible in 2003 when Mumbai’s strong dockworkers’ union targeted the neighbouring shipbreaking yard for organizing. Before recruiting members, the union provided drinking water and first aid to ship breakers. Despite the 12-hour days this was not provided by the employers.

Mumbai ship breakers now report the most important changes brought by the union to be getting a voice at the workplace, awareness of health and safety, awareness of labour laws, getting basic needs provided and getting the employer to provide protective equipment.

From 2004 the union turned its organizing attention to Alang, aiming to replicate its successful organizing in Mumbai at the much larger site 680km north, up the western coast of India.

The union spent a year mapping and providing basic needs to workers before starting to recruit members. Drinking water, an ambulance, basic health and safety and first aid training were provided, and the union held regular gate meetings with workers.

With workers afraid of losing their job, the union had difficulty at first in identifying dedicated activists at the Alang yards. Now that the union is 15,019 strong there is no fear of dismissal.

One important basic provision from the union at the yards is to conduct blood tests for new members so that their union membership card includes their blood group. Workers know that this is often vital information after an accident. The union membership card is usually also the only form of ID that the workers have.

Another important addition the union has brought to both Mumbai and Alang yards is basic health and safety training for every new worker.

Many of the employers in Mumbai were also present in Alang, and in both locations a majority of the land is owned by the authorities and leased to shipbreaking contractors, meaning greater oversight from the government. In Bangladesh and Pakistan many of the shipyards are privately owned.

Environmental damage

Shipbreaking on a dry dock allows for all pollutants from the ship to be safely drained and disposed of, however, dry dock facilities require major investment to build. Smaller ships are broken in Turkey under these conditions.

In Alang, ships are broken on the beach, after being hauled onto the sand with the tide. This is less damaging to the environment than the process in Chittagong, Bangladesh, where ships are broken directly in the sea just off the beach, so that oil and chemical toxins wash away into the Bay of Bengal.

Under pressure from environmental campaigners the Indian Ministry of Shipping is currently considering closing its Mumbai shipbreaking yard. However, the strong union insists that no closure can happen until all workers at the yard are secured employment elsewhere, with equal pay.

Along with trade unions, environment campaigners are helping to create pressure on governments and shipping companies, pushing them to support the Hong Kong Convention. Compliance with the convention will dramatically improve workers’ health and safety, as well as the environment.

Pakistan’s dangerous yards

The Gadani yard in Pakistan is the world’s third largest, employing an average of 10-15,000 workers. Workers normally work seven days a week, often at least 12 hours a day, with no paid holidays, no benefits, and salaries of PKR 12,000 (US$113) per month, equal to half of a living wage.

Almost no safety equipment is provided in Gadani. There is no training, no clean drinking water, and no first aid. Workers who are cutting on the ship are not provided any climbing equipment or safety harness, resulting in many accidents of workers falling from the ship’s deck down to the beach. Asbestos and toxic chemicals are prevalent and not disposed of safely.

IndustriALL’s affiliated NTUF reports up to 19 deaths at the Gadani yards per year, but the real figure is feared to be much higher. There is no functioning hospital for 50km. The union reports that workers know they will be dismissed if they join the union.

IndustriALL campaigns to make the Hong Kong Convention a reality

The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships was adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) of the UN in 2009. IndustriALL campaigns for ratification of the comprehensive convention as its proper implementation will make the dangerous job of shipbreaking much safer.

Occupational health and safety provisions in the convention include control of hazardous materials on the ships, and control of risks at the shipbreaking sites, ensuring safety training and protective gear for workers.

Conditions to be met before the convention enters into force are that 15 countries must ratify, and ratifying countries must cover 40 per cent of the world’s merchant ships. Currently only Norway, Congo and France have ratified. While not yet fully ratifying, these countries have also signed the convention: Italy, St Kitts and Nevis, Turkey, and the Netherlands.

The first condition is more easily achieved than the second. Achieving ratification from countries representing 40 per cent of the world’s fleet by gross tonnage will require the support of major shipping and shipbreaking states like Japan, Korea and China, plus one or more of the top five open registers, Panama, Liberia, Marshall Islands, Singapore, and the Bahamas. Ship owners use flags of convenience to register ships in one of these five countries to avoid regulations and tax.

Two of the ship recycling facilities in Alang were awarded compliance with the Hong Kong Convention in September 2015, namely Kalthia and Priya Blue.

Once the convention comes into force all countries that are members of the IMO will be required to have their ships recycled in yards complying with the convention.

Strong shipbuilding unions stand with shipbreaking workers out of solidarity and also because sustainable shipbreaking is needed for a sustainable shipbuilding industry.

IndustriALL affiliates are leading lobbying efforts towards ratification of the Hong Kong Convention by governments in Japan, Australia, Germany, Denmark, Norway and India.

At the IndustriALL World Conference on Shipbuilding-Shipbreaking, November 2014, unions from the sector in 19 countries resolved to campaign for ratification of the Hong Kong Convention.

This commitment was made in light of the fact that:

“Every year, hundreds of shipbreaking workers lose their lives facing serious occupational accidents in the shipbreaking yards of the South Asia region. The incidence of occupational diseases is largely unknown but believed to be extremely high. It is only a dream for most workers to live or survive until the age of 60.”

The campaign was fully launched at IndustriALL’s Executive Committee meeting in May 2015. And the IndustriALL shipbuilding-shipbreaking Action Group meeting in Chittagong in November 2015 reaffirmed its commitment to worldwide action on the ratification of the Hong Kong Convention.

IndustriALL Director for the Shipbuilding and Shipbreaking Industries, Kan Matsuzaki coordinates the campaign to clean up the industry:

"This industry as a whole has a responsibility to provide workers their right to safe, healthy, clean and sustainable jobs. We are determined to build strong unions at the yards, and combat the unacceptable working conditions.

IndustriALL Global Union demands that all member states of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) ratify the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships NOW!"

Satoshi Kudoh, President of the Japanese Federation of Basic Industry Workers’ Unions and also Co-Chair of the IndustriALL Shipbuilding-Shipbreaking sector has led the lobbying effort in Japan. In September 2015, Brother Kudoh directly demanded Akihiro Ohta, Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism to expedite the ratification of the Hong Kong Convention by the Japanese Government. The minister responded positively that Japan would ratify.

IG Metall’s Coastal Region called for action from the German government in September 2015. The union’s regional secretary Meinhard Geiken made a high-profile handover of demands on a large placard to Germany’s Maritime Coordinator, flanked by shipyard workers in Hamburg. Parliamentary State Secretary Uwe Beckmeyer committed in writing to achieving the swift ratification of the Hong Kong Convention.

Australian affiliate AMWU has lobbied its government and moved a resolution inside the Australian Labour Party to support the Hong Kong Convention.

In Denmark, CO-Industri linked up with the Danish Shipowners’ Association in September 2015 to write to the Danish Minister for Environment and Food, and ask the government to ratify the Hong Kong Convention as soon as possible.

The letter also urges the Danish government, together with EU member countries, to take the lead in dialogue with the South Asian countries on ratification of the Hong Kong Convention.

The Alang shipbreaking workers’ union is also lobbying the Indian government to ratify. The issue was a central demand of the union’s public campaign on 7 October, World Day for Decent Work.

The Indian government is also under pressure from the Japanese government and companies to ratify the convention. Japanese funding has been offered to improve yard facilities in Alang, including half-dry docks with proper waste disposal and treatment facilities. A high level delegation of government officials, trade union, shipping industry representatives and experts from Japan who visited Alang in early 2015, said that: “Japan can help if India is ready to ratify the Hong Kong Convention.”

An IndustriALL delegation met the Bangladeshi Ministry of Industries in November 2015 to lobby for ratification of the convention. Sector Vice-Chair V. V. Rane handed over the demands of the campaign explaining, “Bangladeshi ratification would be mutually beneficial to all parties. As shipping companies are under increasing pressure to have their ships recycled in a responsible manner, compliance with the Hong Kong Convention would bring investment, health and safety training, and business to Bangladeshi shipyards.”

The Ministry Secretary told the delegation that a Ship Recycling Act would be presented to parliament at the end of 2015, leading to ratification of the convention.

A number of other governments are working towards ratification. Pressure inside the European Union is expected to deliver ratification by Belgium, followed by other European governments. European ships make up 20 per cent of the world’s ships and most are reportedly broken in Bangladesh.

China and Turkey already have ship-recycling industries that are largely compliant with the technical requirements of the convention. The two countries are moving towards ratification.

IndustriALL general secretary Jyrki Raina prioritizes this campaign:

"Ship building for 130,000 workers in South Asia is predominantly done in medieval conditions. It is shameful that five years have passed since the Hong Kong Convention’s adoption and only three countries have ratified. Major shipbuilding and shipbreaking economies are yet to ratify and we will not stop campaigning until they do. Of course our campaign to clean up the world’s most dangerous job is wider than this convention and IndustriALL is committed to strengthening unions throughout the industry, but the Hong Kong Convention will change lives."