First shipbreaking pact draws critics

A new treaty to make ship recycling safer was signed by dozens of nations on Friday, but activists say it does not end “beaching”, by which ships dumped at high tide then drift to beaches to be taken apart, Agence France-Presse reported. The pact is the first such agreement on shipbreaking, which often exposes workers to asbestos, mercury and other hazardous substances.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) convention requires shipowners to provide an inventory of hazardous materials aboard a ship before it is sent for recycling. That work is mostly carried out in China, Turkey and south Asia, often by unskilled and ill-protected migrants. 

But in the words of Ingvild Jenssen, director of NGO Platform on Shipbreaking, an umbrella group of non-governmental organisations: “The new convention on ship recycling adopted today won’t stop a single toxic ship from being broken on the beach of a developing country. It legitimises the infamous breaking yards of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and actually rewards these exploitive operations while punishing those companies that have invested in safer and cleaner methods.”

Much of the shipbreaking done in developing countries takes place on soft sand beaches, where access for heavy-lifting equipment and emergency vehicles is difficult or impossible. Workers, many whom are children, face a high rate of accidents.

Although more than 100 environmental and rights groups have urged the IMO to ban beaching, the UN agency defended the agreement, saying member states had to deal with reality in an important multi-million-dollar industry. Breakers pay ship owners by the tonne and make their money from re-selling the recovered materials. 

China, Brazil, Australia, South Africa and 62 other countries lined up to sign the treaty. 

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