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The Hong Kong Convention is ratified – what next?

27 February, 2024After a long campaign by IndustriALL and its affiliates, the Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships has been ratified and will enter into force on 26 June 2025. What does this mean for shipbreaking workers?

Shipbreaking has been called the most dangerous job in the world, and IndustriALL has campaigned for a long time for the ratification of the Hong Kong Convention (HKC) as the most practical first step to clean up the industry. Supported by affiliates, together we maintained pressure on governments, ship owners, financiers, and other industry stakeholders to promote the Convention.

Due to the terrible death rate in shipbreaking yards, the primary focus has been on improving worker safety – both from accidents and industrial disease – and subsequently on precarious work, low wages and poor working and living conditions. While the Convention doesn’t guarantee a transformed industry, we believe that we can use its ratification as a starting point to improve these aspects.

2023 was a year of excellent news in the world of shipbreaking. When Bangladesh and Liberia ratified the Convention last summer, it meant that all the conditions for entry into force were met. Potential loopholes were closed with Pakistan and Marshall Islands also ratifying, which means that all the major shipbreaking and flag states have now ratified the Convention. There is a large consensus across the industry about the need to clean up shipbreaking, and to create a level playing field.

Alang Ship yard India

How will the HKC improve conditions for workers if the guidelines are implemented correctly?

  1. Yards owners will have to record and make available details of all workers, including contractors.

For a shipyard to receive authorization to break ships, it will need to present a compliant Ship Recycling Facility Plan to the competent authorities – the relevant government department. This should include a record of all workers employed at the yard, including contractors, as well as a health and safety training programme. No worker will be allowed to work on the yard without completing the training.

This is an important change in an industry that relies on casual labour. Yard owners have typically relied on a pool of unregistered migrant workers. A major issue has been workers getting ill after working in the shipyards, returning to their home villages and not receiving treatment or compensation. This change also makes union organizing easier. When trying to organize shipbreaking workers, employers fire union members. Because the workers are casual labourers, it is difficult to prove their status as employees to prove union busting. This will become more difficult because of the registration requirement. The need to provide training should also lead to a shift towards more investment in a better skilled workplace.

  1. All personnel must have the appropriate level of safety training

The health and safety training must specifically address the materials involved in shipbreaking, and include instructions and plans for dealing with hazards such as asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), ozone-depleting substances (ODSs), anti-fouling compounds and systems, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury, polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated naphthalenes (PCNs), radioactive substances and certain short-chain chlorinated paraffins. Since these are the hazards that are responsible for the occupational illnesses suffered by workers, this will make a substantial difference.

The training programme must also cover provision of PPE and training on its use, fire safety, emergency response and evacuation, safety and health training, environmental awareness and first aid.

  1. Employers must show management and accountability structures and maintain records. 

This includes having a dedicated safety officer responsible for hazards assessment, prevention strategies, safe for entry criteria and safe for hot work procedures.

The yard owner must also provide:

  1. Health and sanitation, such as washing and toilet facilities, provision of clean water, eating and recreation areas, changing and laundry facilities to stop workers taking toxic waste home.
  2. Medical monitoring for occupational illness.
  3. An emergency response plan.
  4. A hazards list and treatment procedures.

The entry into force of the HKC depends on domestic legislation for implementation. This means that the ship recycling countries need to develop national laws that cover ship recycling, waste management and so on. The International Maritime Organization is currently working with the government of Bangladesh to develop appropriate laws and enforcement mechanisms through a project called SENSREC, while India has completed the process and similar work is planned in Pakistan.

Alang Shipyard, India

Towards Just Transition

The ratification of the HKC is a minimum and important first step to improve worker safety. It will be important to evaluate how effective it is in practice, and whether elements of it need to be improved, particularly to match the Basel Convention on the treatment of hazardous materials. However, to address the gaps and risks, we need to go further, and work for a Just Transition in the South Asian shipbreaking industry.

This would involve recognizing unions, and creating tripartite social dialogue – between unions, employers and government – to negotiate the implementation of the HKC and the transformation of the industry. Cooperation between the relevant government agencies, ship recyclers, and the unions representing workers on the ground would focus on joint health and safety committees, providing education and training, ensuring access to social security, monitoring and inspection of yards and ensuring that workers’ rights are respected. Workers and their unions need to be recognized as full partners in the industry.

There are many opportunities to transform a dirty and dangerous industry into one that provides a net benefit to the world by safely recycling ships and providing a reliable supply of green steel.

This may involve transforming the local steel industry so that steel is recycled using electric arc furnaces instead of downcycled in rerolling mills, and developing the recycling industry. Other stakeholders in the industry – particularly ship owning and flag states, shipowners, financiers and cash buyers – should be brought into the discussion to provide the financial, technical and political support.

However, none of this potential can be reached without a Just Transition, and the active participation of the workers and communities affected