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Progress in the Ship-Breaking Industry?

May 14, 2009

Last month, when the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize honorees were named, they included Rizwana Hasan, a lawyer who has worked to hold the ship recycling industry in Bangladesh to higher standards regarding worker and environmental safety. Now comes word that, after five years of negotiations, delegates from 64 countries have reached a general consensus on the shape of an agreement to regulate ship-breaking.

The new agreement, the International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, requires all vessels to carry detailed, regularly updated inventories of hazardous materials throughout their years of service, and for this information to be provided to recycling facilities. The convention calls for workers at these centers to be equipped with a wide range of protective gear, for the centers to have disposal procedures for hazardous materials and for emergency response plans to be prepared. (New York Times)

Great news, right? Well, maybe . . .While this agreement certainly represents some progress, it is far from ideal. The pact does not include any provisions requiring workers who remove hazardous materials to have training that meets the standards currently required in wealthier nations such as the US, nor does it establish an international enforcement mechanism. The task of holding companies to the new rules will be left to individual national governments—whatever their resources or lack thereof. Companies will still be allowed to dismantle ships on beaches, where the process is likelier to damage delicate ecosystems, rather than in dockyards.

These are issues not only about environmentaly protection but also about workers’ rights. To quote Ms. Hasan:

I call it exploitation, I don’t call it employment. The majority of the laborers are seasonal migrants from the north, the poorest of the poor. They will get three meals and day and rarely some payment, but they will definitely get diseases. (CNN)

She also points out that this is a classic example of environmental injustice: companies seeking higher profits dump waste in a poor nation, damaging not only the land but also the people who live there. The struggles of women, men, and children to survive and maybe live just a little better are treated as an opportunity for profit. This is one of the worst kinds of theft.

This new international pact may ameliorate some of the worst abuses, but it does not address the injustice at its root.

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