Killing The Future: Asbestos Use In Asia
Ship-breaking in India
If done correctly, the decommissioning of end-of-life vessels contaminated with asbestos, lead, mercury and PCBs is an expensive process. Seeking to minimize costs, governments have taken advantage of the world's dirtiest industry: the scrapping of toxic ships by workers in Asian countries.61 The Clemenceau, a 27,000 tonne flagship French warship, set sail for the Alang shipyard (India) on December 31, 2005 after a ruling by a French administrative court which confirmed the ship's status as "material of war." The ship was "pure poison," containing a cocktail of lethal substances including up to 1,000 tonnes of asbestos. Inconveniently for French decision makers, the international dumping of such contaminated waste infringed the Basel Convention, and the European Waste Shipment Regulation as well as national law.
The French Government's actions were based on double standards: at home, the import and use of asbestos was banned yet abroad teh Government was prepared for scrap yard workers to receive hazardous exposures in the most primitive of conditions. Ship breaking is big business in Alang Bay; in 2001-2002, 264 ships were broken up by 25,000-40,000 workers, some as young as 17. Women carry away the lighter items from the ships including many which contain or are covered with asbestos. Asbestos is torn off steelwork with bare hands; people dry out crocidolite so it can be resold. The workers are mostly barefoot and protection from the many occupational hazards they are exposed to consists, in general, of a scarf over their mouths. No protective equipment or respiratory protection is provided to protect workers from hazardous asbestos exposures. Working conditions which are typical in Alang include the following :
- exploited and illiterate unskilled workers paid US$2/day;
- deaths, fatal accidents, minor and major injuries are common and no medical assistance is available;
- little or no provision of even the bare minimum of protective gear;
- no job security or redress of grievances exist;
- the presence of asbestos and the dumping of asbestos and other toxic substances put workers' health at risk both at work and at home as many live on or near the worksite.62
P.K. Ganguly, from the Center of Indian Trade Unions, (CITU) sums up the situation faced by those in the ship breaking yards as follows:
"These workers are the most vulnerable workers in our sector, constantly migrating in search of seasonal jobs in the shipyards, subject to ruthless employers who are callous about their occupational health and safety and totally ignored by the political authorities... workers in Alang face daily exploitation and exposure to life-threatening hazards due to the inability of the government to establish and enforce standards."63
A global campaign to send the Clemenceau back to France was mounted by international NGOs led by the Corporate Accountability Desk (India), Ban Asbestos France and the NGO Platform on Ship breaking.64 Legal proceedings were initiated in France and India by the NGOs to force the recall of the ship. After demonstrations by Greenpeace and environmentalists 50 nautical miles off the coast of Egypt on January 12, 2006,65 authorities in Egypt delayed the ship's passage through the Suez Canal Claiming they had been misinformed as to the nature of the on-board contamination. Synchronized demonstrations in France, India, Egypt and Bangladesh were covered in media reports that were widely circulated. On February 15, 2006 a French Court suspended the authorization of the Clemenceau's passage; shortly thereafter teh French President recalled the ship. On May 17, 2006, the hsip returned to its home port after its fruitless US$38 million 12,000 mile qust to find and Asian scrap yard willing to decommission it. The inability of international treaties and national laws to prevent the global trade in toxic waste, which was exposed by the engage with regional authorities such as teh European Union to ensure that there is a clampdown on such illegal practices.
Despite the success achieved with the Clemenceau, business in Alang's scrap yards is booming. From November 2006-January 2007 a total of 47 ships arrived for scrapping; January's figure of 24 marked a two year high and signifies an increase in Alang's workload from the measly 32 ships which arrived in the five months between June to October 2006.66 Ship-breaking commentators say that the strength of the steel market in Alang and political turmoil in Bangladesh are responsible; Alang is receiving small (5,000 tonne) and midsized (12-15,000 tonne) tankers from the Gulf countries.
61. Twenty years ago, ship-recycling took place in 79 countries; nowadays most of this work is conducted in South Asia. According to one authoritative source, more than 90% of redundant ships are broken up or recycled on the beaches of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China and Turkey.
62. See: End of Life Ships - The Human Cost of Breaking Ships. See also: Improving Conditions in Shipbreaking.
63. Press Release - Indian Platform on Ship-breaking. Illegal Traffic of Toxic Waste Laden Ship Blue Lady. July 6, 2006.
64. The groups which are part of this platform are: Greenpeace, the International Federation for Human Rights, the European Federation for Transport and Environment, North Sea Foundation, Bellana, the Ban Asbestos Network and the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat.
65. Kazan-Allen L. Le Clemenceau: Action and Reaction. January 13, 2006.
66. Sahu M. Political Turmoil in Bangladesh Turns Tide in Favour of Alang. February 19, 2007.