Have you ever heard about beaching? It is not a relaxing outdoor sport or a fun internet game. On the contrary, behind this innocent-sounding word hides one of the harshest and most dangerous jobs in the world: shipbreaking on beaches in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan, where regulatory mechanisms are weak, ignoring basic safety rules, where labour force is cheap and respect for the environment non-existent. Unskilled workers – many of them under 18 - cut up these coffin-like vessels apart for an estimated 3 euros for a 12 to 16 hour working day. Shipbreaking is the dismantling of end-of-life ships with the aim of recycling its materials.
EU has a moral responsibility to protect workers' rights also outside Europe
"We have to end this dangerous work, which not only exploits the poorest, but also puts their life in danger on a daily basis. It is the EU's moral duty to defend workers' basic rights abroad too", said Martin Siecker, rapporteur of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)'s own-initiative opinion on Shipbreaking and the recycling society, which was adopted on 19 October at the EESC's plenary.
EU ship owners control around 40% of the world's merchant fleet and account for around one third of the end-of-life tonnage beached in sub-standard yards in South Asia. Every year around 1,000 large ocean-going vessels are sold for dismantling. Over two thirds of these end-of-life ships end up on beaches in the above mentioned countries.
Tightening up regulation through economic instruments
The EESC urges the Commission to come up with more rigorous legislation that recognizes ship owners' responsibility and duty to dispose of their ships in a decent way. The 'polluter pays principle' should also be applied to ship-owners and the EU has a particular responsibility to eliminate the abuses of irresponsible and inhuman ship dismantling, argues the EESC, calling for an economic instrument which can guide developments in the desired direction. “If Europe wants its ships to be scrapped in a responsible way, it is reasonable that it should ensure that the cost of doing so is integrated into the operating cost of the vessel”, said Richard Adams, co-rapporteur of the EESC opinion.
And the impact on ship owners will be modest: A recent study on a ship recycling licence (SRL) published by the European Commission shows that adding a mere 0.5 % to the operating costs of smaller ships and around 2% for larger categories would be enough to change the behaviour of 42% of ship owners, while a further rate increase or a shortening of the proposed capital accumulation would raise this percentage to 68%, and in the long run 97% of ships calling at EU ports would be dismantled in a proper way.
Several attempts have been made to enforce ship owner responsibility for coffin ships, but with little or no success, such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO)'s Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (HKC) and its International Ship Recycling Trust Fund. In the EU, the search for an effective solution has been on the agenda for many years. With the EU Ship Recycling Regulation (EU SRR), which will be applicable at the latest in 2018, the Commission is setting high standards for ship recycling facilities, but ship-owners can easily circumvent this regulation by transferring ownership or simply flagging out of the EU. With the financial instrument proposed by the EESC, however, ship owners could be prevented from abdicating their responsibility because if their ships are not dismantled on a facility that is on an EU approved list they cannot reclaim the money and have to pay a price.
A new industry for maritime areas
While the majority of ship recycling would probably still take place in countries with low labour costs, it would at least then happen under better working and environmental conditions. But sustainable ship recycling could also be profitable for Europe. Given the scarcity of raw materials and their high and volatile prices, an industry specializing in recycling end-of-life ships could generate growth and jobs in particular in maritime areas and help to reduce import balance of raw materials.