Enhancing justice through binding international regulations

Shipbreaking today is a global practice that involves pollution, uprooting of coastal vegetation, and dangerous working conditions. Ingvild Jenssen, Director and founder of NGO Shipbreaking Platform argues that binding and effective regulations is the only sustainable solution to the problem.

The ship The Benefactor was broken on a shipbreaking yard in Alang, India (Photo: Adam Cohn)

Ingvild Jenssen is the Director and founder of NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a coalition of NGOs working to prevent toxic end-of-life ships from being beached in developing countries. 

Ingvild Jenssen is a member of the GLOBUS policy network. 

Shipbreaking on the beaches of South Asia is a prime example of a globally unjust practice, where transnational corporations export waste to less developed parts of the world in an unsafe manner in order to gain profits. Shipbreaking is also a case that illustrates the multi-faceted practical challenges of enhancing justice in the global context, such as regulating beyond the state, ensuring accountability, and the economic inequalities that exist between developed and less developed countries.

GLOBUS conducts a critical analysis of the EU’s contribution to global political justice. But what is just is contested, both by scholars and practitioners. The best course of action with regard to a particular issue or problem is not always evident. Through engaging with civil society organisations, such as the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, GLOBUS aims to better understand the perspectives and experiences of actors on the ground. GLOBUS investigates what normative prioritisations they make and to what extent they are similar – or different – from those of the EU.

Shipbreaking is also a case that illustrates the multi-faceted practical challenges of enhancing justice in the global context, such as regulating beyond the state, ensuring accountability, and the economic inequalities that exist between developed and less developed countries.

When end-of-life ships are sold for scrap, the owners gain a profit for the steel that the ship is made of. Generally, the size of the profit depends on the global steel price, but also on the environmental and safety standards of the yard where the ship is broken down. According to NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a ship owner can earn millions USD more by selling to a yard that pollutes and ignores health and safety laws.

– The problem of shipbreaking on tidal beaches is that on the one hand it pollutes. On the other hand, it involves extremely dangerous working conditions. The workers have not gone through proper training, and in certain areas there are child workers. The workers cut down the ships manually, and in many cases, parts of the ship fall down and hit workers, says Jenssen.

Jenssen adds that the workers in these beach shipbreaking yards often experience gas cylinder explosions, falling from heights or sickness due to being exposed to poisonous gases. Workers often work without contracts and on low salaries. For these reasons, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has named shipbreaking one of the most dangerous and hazardous jobs in the world.

CSOs as knowledge providers to the EU 

The NGO Shipbreaking Platform is a coalition of environmental, human rights and labour rights organisations, working to prevent toxic end-of-life ships from being beached in developing countries. In addition to local organisations in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the NGO’s Secretariat is based in Brussels, where the main focus is both to push the EU to regulate the shipbreaking industry, and to monitor and expose illegal shipbreaking practices originating in European countries.

Civil society organisations, such as the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, play an important role in EU foreign policy-making, as sources of knowledge and information, which may be critical to improving the Union’s policies. As such, the NGO Shipbreaking platform practices different types of advocacy both at the EU and member state level. Jenssen explains that the NGO’s work methods include providing information and reports to the EU, mapping the global shipbreaking industry, naming and shaming ship owners with poor shipbreaking practices, as well as providing support to workers in shipyards in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Civil society organisations, such as the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, play an important role in EU foreign policy-making, as sources of knowledge and information, which may be critical to improving the Union’s policies.

Read also: Critical voice and constructive partner? The role of civil society in EU foreign policy

European countries responsible

About shipbreaking

  • Shipbreaking is the process of dismantling end-of-life ships and selling parts, such as steel, for scrap
  • The process can be dangerous if environmental and safety standards are not met, as the ships contain hazardous waste and poisonous and inflammable gases
  • The main shipbreaking countries in the world are India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey and China
  • Most end-of-life ships are sold to beaching facilities in South Asia through global cash buyers

European ship owners are responsible for more than one third of all ships sold for breaking. In 2016, 84 per cent of all European end-of-life ships ended up on beaches in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. This amounts to more than 40 per cent of all end-of-life vessels scrapped on beaches (measured in tonnage). Germany and Greece are the two European countries responsible for the worst shipbreaking practices in the entire world.

– None of the South Asian shipbreaking yards would be allowed to operate in the EU. From our point of view, it is wrong that a European ship owner accepts lower standards than what is legal in the EU, says Jenssen.

Jenssen also adds that

– They [national authorities] should be fighting for a much higher standard. Sustainable ship recycling does not require impossible or high tech solutions – it is fully feasible and actually practiced in several facilities in other parts of the world already.

The three biggest shipbreaking countries in the world are India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. According to NGO shipbreaking platform, more than 80 per cent of the world’s end-of-life ships are broken on beaches in these countries.

The problem is that selling end-of-life ships via scrap-dealers known as 'cash buyers', to beaching yards, is the most profitable way of getting rid of a ship. In other words, short term economic interest trumps concerns for labour rights and environmental standards.  

From our point of view, it is wrong that a European ship owner accepts lower standards than what is legal in the EU. 

– Most ship owners’ priority is to maximise their profits. There are shipyards in Europe that can do this job in a much safer and cleaner manner, but they don’t get access to the market because the shipping industry so easily can sell to whoever offers the highest price, says Jenssen.

Regulating the industry

A more just global order requires institutions and procedures at the international level that allow for those affected by the policies or practices of transnational actors to voice their concerns. Meanwhile, in the case of illegal shipbreaking, the most powerful actors – the ship owners – make decisions that do not necessarily take into account the interests of those affected by their policies. Is there a way to ensure that the interests and concerns of those negatively affected by dangerous and polluting shipbreaking are heard?

One of the main concerns of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform is to ensure that the shipbreaking industry is regulated in a way that effectively holds the ship owners and their countries of origin accountable.

The oil tanker Polar at Gadani shipbreaking yard in Pakistan (Photo: Michael Foley)

There are several regulations covering the transboundary movement of hazardous waste both internationally and in the EU. The Basel Convention from 1989 is an international treaty that regulates the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes, and specifically aims to prevent transfers of hazardous wastes from developed to less developed countries.

A more just global order requires institutions and procedures at the international level that allow for those affected by the policies or practices of transnational actors to voice their concerns.

Based on this convention, the EU adopted the Waste Shipment Regulation in 2006, which, bans the export of hazardous wastes to non-OECD countries as well as a ban on the export of waste for disposal. Under these regulations, ships sold for breaking are considered to be hazardous waste and exporting a vessel from the EU for disposal in a non-OECD country is therefore illegal. The problem is that ship owners easily find ways of avoiding these regulations, through simply not declaring their intent to dispose the vessel and claim further operational use.

Need higher standards

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a UN agency with responsibility for the safety, security and environmental performance of international shipping, has also adopted a convention on the safe and environmentally sound recycling of ships (the Hong Kong Convention), but it has only been ratified by six countries and has therefore not entered into force.

Jenssen argues that the Hong Kong convention does not set a high enough standard for shipbreaking practices. On the contrary, Jenssen argues that it legitimises the practice of shipbreaking on beaches in South Asia because it does not ban beaching; it does not regulate the downstream management of hazardous wastes; and it sets no standards for labour rights. The NGO shipbreaking platform and other NGOs have argued that the Hong Kong Convention merely is a way of rubberstamping the status quo.

– While it was negotiated, the Hong Kong Convention was used as an excuse for other actors not to do anything about the problem, adds Jenssen.

Although the EU and other actors took a backseat position while the Hong Kong Convention was negotiated, Jenssen explains that the problems in the shipbreaking industry have been on the agenda in the EU over the last 10-20 years. After it became clear that the Hong Kong Convention was not going to enter in to force any time soon, the EU started working on its own regulations.

Innovative regulations

In 2013, the EU adopted the European Ship Recycling Regulation, which sets higher standards and is more detailed than the Hong Kong Convention. It also guarantees that the EU will publish a list of all ship recycling facilities globally that comply with the regulations. The Regulation will require all EU flagged ships to only use approved facilities. Jenssen explains that the EU is currently doing a thorough job of creating this list through reviewing applications and committing on-the-ground audits.

– This is an innovative regulation. There are not many areas where the EU moves to certify or authorise foreign businesses, says Jenssen.

Jenssen and the NGO Shipbreaking Platform welcomes the new regulation, and say that it is not likely that any of the shipbreaking yards on the beaches in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan will meet the standards.

Shipbreking yard in Chittagong, Bangladesh (Photo: Adam Cohn)

– We are convinced that none of the shipbreaking yards on these beaches meet the technical requirements of the Regulation and will thus not make it on to the list, but there is a massive political pressure from some European ship owners to include them, says Jenssen.  

Regulating beyond the nation state

Although the EU has shown interest in regulating the shipbreaking industry, Jenssen explains that there are still many fundamental problems when it comes to holding ship owners accountable.

The practices of these transnational corporations often have intended or unintended consequences for people in other places of the globe than where they necessarily operate.

Efforts to regulate the shipbreaking industry have halted much due to challenges that are becoming more and more common in today’s globalised world order, where the nation state no longer is the sole regulator of corporations. Transnational corporations, such as the ship owners, cannot easily be put under the jurisdiction of one specific state. At the same time, the practices of these transnational corporations often have intended or unintended consequences for people in other places of the globe than where they necessarily operate.

Escaping responsibility

The problem, Jenssen explains, is that EU regulations only apply to ships that sail under an EU-flag. The practice of re-flagging to a so-called flag of convenience at the end of a ship’s life is very common. According to the NGO shipbreaking platform, only 44 of the 274 European vessels that were broken on beaches in 2016 sailed under a European flag.

By selling the ship to a cash buyer and re-flagging, the original owner can avoid regulations. The cash buyers also provide the ships with fake licences claiming that the ships do not contain hazardous waste, making it easier for it to enter the beaches in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The practice of re-flagging, along with the failed attempts at regulating the shipbreaking industry shows that today’s international infrastructure of institutions is not apt to address the complexity of challenges and risks that follow from intensified globalisation and economic integration.

In practice, the proposed new regulations on ship recycling places responsibility on flag states and the shipbreaking states, which have limited resources and capacity, or will, rather than on the states where the shipping company that takes all commercial decisions is incorporated.

The practice of re-flagging, along with the failed attempts at regulating the shipbreaking industry shows that today’s international infrastructure of institutions is not apt to address the complexity of challenges and risks that follow from intensified globalisation and economic integration.

Ensuring environmental justice through financial incentives

To avoid circumvention of the law, the NGO Shipbreaking Platform and others have suggested a financial incentive based on the polluter pays principle, which would make it more profitable for ship owners to use sustainable ship recycling facilities. The idea is to create a ship recycling licence, where financial contributions will be collected from all vessels trading in the EU. The money accumulated throughout a ship’s lifetime will only be paid back to the last owner if the ship is recycled in a facility on the EU’s list.

This suggestion rectifies concerns over another financial model that was proposed to be included in the draft of the European Ship Recycling Regulation, but never became a part of the final law because the European Parliament voted against it. According to Jenssen, it is possible that the Ship Recycling Licence model is implemented if the current regulation is unsuccessful in reducing the dirty shipbreaking practices of European ship owners.

– A financial incentive would be a way of getting rid of the problems with re-flagging, as well as holding ship owners that trade with the EU responsible. This is where the power of the EU lies – the ships can re-flag as much as they want, but they will not stop trading in EU waters, says Jenssen.

Written by

Ragnhild Grønning, Research assistant, ARENA Centre for European Studies

By Ragnhild Grønning
Published Sep. 3, 2018 12:04 PM - Last modified Sep. 3, 2018 12:24 PM