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Shipbreaking unions plan for entry into force of Hong Kong Convention

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27 November, 2023South Asian shipbreaking unions met in Kathmandu, Nepal, on 24-25 November, to evaluate a three-year organizing project supported by FNV Mondiaal, which ends this year. The industry is going through tremendous change as it prepares for the entry into force of the Hong Kong Convention (HKC).

Unions in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have worked hard to organize shipbreaking workers and establish themselves as partners in social dialogue. This work is most advanced in India, where the Alang-Sosiya Ship Recycling and General Workers’ Association (ASSRGWA) and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) have established themselves as representatives of shipbreaking and downstream workers. ASSRGWA has been involved in a social dialogue process with the employers’ federation SRIA, facilitated by the ILO, to address health and safety.
Bangladesh is upgrading its shipyards to be HKC compliant through an International Maritime Organization (IMO) project called SENSREC. IndustriALL has been involved in the planning phase of SENSREC, arguing that social infrastructure needs to be upgraded at the same time as physical infrastructure.
The National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan is working with the government of Balochistan to draft legislation that will bring the country into compliance with the HKC. Pakistan is the only shipbreaking country in the region which has not yet ratified the Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, which will enter into force in June 2025.
Participants at the meeting reported on the improved health and safety situation in the industry, which has seen fewer accidents and fatalities in recent years. Unions believe that this is because of a new awareness of the importance of safety created by the HKC, and the mandatory safety training that is required. However, some foremen still demand unsafe practices to save time, and some ships are broken according to market demand for material rather than according to the approved recycling plan. The key to changing this is establishing a union safety presence at yard level.
Participants heard that across South Asia, the number of ships being sent for breaking has been low since the end of the pandemic. This is due to a high freight rates and trade volumes, which means that shipowners keep ships longer because they can still be used profitably. The price of ships is high, while the demand for scrap and the steel price are comparatively long. In addition, some countries in the region have seen their currency devalue against the dollar, and there is a shortage of finance and funding to purchase ships.
However, the shipowners’ association BIMCO believes that around 15,000 ships will need to be broken over the next 10 years, twice the volume of the previous 10 years. Despite the current slump, yard owners are investing a lot ahead of an anticipated boom.
After safety, the main issues the unions will address are precarious work and low wages. The HKC is likely to see a shift towards more skilled labour, and the training requirement means employers are more likely to maintain workers they have invested in. Unions will use this to bargain for better conditions.
IndustriALL shipbuilding and shipbreaking director Walton Pantland said:

“The next 18 months will be crucial for this industry, as it goes through a rapid transition to meet HKC requirements. We must make sure that this transition is just, and that when the Convention enters into force, unions are established as partners with the right to negotiate on behalf of workers. We must create good, green jobs in ship recycling.”