Workers in a shipbreaking yard in Chittagong, Bangladesh, with flame cutters breaking parts of a shipwreck. Photo: AFP

Ship brokers are flying flags of convenience to skirt conventions against the dumping of redundant vessels on Asian beaches, where it is believed hundreds of workers are killed and injured in hazardous breaking yards.

Statistics kept by Shipbreaking Platform, a coalition of environmental, human rights and labor groups, indicate German companies were the worst culprits in the first half of 2017, followed by Singapore, Greece and South Korea. About 800 large ships are sold for scrap in Asia each year, the group estimates.

Yards in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are believed to account for as much as 80% of the global breaking and recycling market for ocean-going vessels, with a further 15% occurring in China and Turkey. The biggest is at the Bangladeshi port city of Chittagong, which recycled 230 ships last year.

The industry employs hundreds of thousands of people, often poor rural migrants, and pumps millions into local economies. Bangladesh gets 60% of its steel supply from the rusting hulks, Pakistan at least 15% and India 5-6%, according to the World Bank. Everything from ships is recycled.

European and North American ship brokers use the yards because they can reap an extra US$1 million or more by exploiting Asia’s lower costs and — perhaps most importantly — its lax environmental standards. Ships are usually loaded with toxic metals that would require reprocessing in Western ports, but are simply piled up on beaches by workers on Asian yards.

Children as young as 14 work in the breaking yards, and there are few safety precautions. Labor unions say that at last 125 people have been killed in Chittagong in the past decade and there have been similar fatality levels at other yards. An unknown number have been injured.

Workers break metal into small pieces at a breaking yard in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 28, 2016. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Efforts are now being made to hold ship owners and managers responsible for the accidents.

In December, British law firm Leigh Day filed a lawsuit over the injuries suffered by Chittagong worker Mohamed Edris in 2015 when a falling sheet of metal from the ship Eurus London severed his left leg below the knee, blinded him in one eye and badly damaged his back.

According to the lawsuit, Zodiac Maritime, a British-based shipping company that had managed the container vessel until it was sold to US broker GMS for scrap, should have been aware of the work dangers in the yard.

Edris, who can no longer work, has said he warned supervisors that a large metal platform placed below the propeller to stop it falling on the beach could rebound when the propeller fell down. Indeed, it did spring back.

Scrapping hazardous vessels is prohibited under the terms of the 2009 Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships. The edict has not been enforced, however, because it lacks the required signatures representing 40% of merchant shipping.

Shipping yards also consort with ship owners and brokers to keep their businesses afloat through “greenwashing”, or obtaining a Statement of Compliance with the treaty.

In December, the Peace Happiness and Prosperity (PHP) breaking yard in Chittagong was certified by RINA (Registro Italiano Navale), an Italian merchant marine classification society, as having met international standards of compliance for shipping.

PHP, owned by a powerful Bangladeshi business family with interests in the steel industry, has consistently refused to allow workers at its yard to have labor union representation. Shipbreaking Platform says it clearly has few environmental safeguards, with toxic materials released into the sea. (PHP could not be reached for comment on the allegation.)

A worker in a shipbreaking yard in Chittagong breaking through the outer skin of a shipwreck with a flame-cutter. Photo: AFP.

European Commission regulations banning the export of hazardous waste have also had limited success in stopping ship exports.

On January 17, British authorities prevented three oil rigs from being shipped from Cromarty Firth in Scotland due to concerns that they might be heading for South Asia. The broker was GMS, the subject of the Chittagong lawsuit.

A key flaw in both conventions is that vessels are regulated according to their flag state jurisdictions, or countries of registration, which are easy to change.

Shipbreaking Platform said that 49 of the vessels sent to Asia in the second quarter of 2017, or about one-third, had their registrations altered only weeks before they reached the beach breaking yards.

Their new “flags” were countries outside the conventions that are not typically used by commercial shipping: Togo, Comoros, Palau, St Kitts & Nevis, Djibouti and Niue were among the most popular.

The company that did the most switching was the Singaporean Continental Shipping Line, which gave six Liberian-flagged vessels new registrations. Quantum Pacific, also based in Singapore, changed flags on four scrapped ships.

The country with the worst dumping record in last year’s second quarter was Germany, which beached 16 vessels. Singapore sent 12 ships to Asian beaches, and there were nine from Greece and eight from South Korea.

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