Threats, fear, inadequate protective equipment are commonplace at Alang shipbreaking yard

alang2Excerpts from “Maersk and the Hazardous Waste”, prepared by Denmark’s top non-profit organization Danwatch, whose investigative team visited the Alang Shipbreaking Yard in August 2016:

The windows at Maersk’s headquarters on Copenhagen’s harbourfront glow with light on the dark winter morning of February 11, 2016.  Less than 24 hours earlier, the company distributed its annual report to journalists and investors, and their verdict was grim. Profits plunged from 5.1 billion US dollars in 2014 to 920 million US dollars in 2015, a financial headache for the firm to which markets reacted by sending its stock price into the cellar.  Analysts around the world call on the firm to make drastic budget cuts and find new business models if it hopes to preserve its market position.

But Maersk had already taken steps to help offset the disappointing result. At the bottom of page 15 in their newly-released Sustainability Report for 2015, the company explains that it expects to save 150 million US dollars by disposing of their decommissioned ships at a shipbreaking yard on a beach in India.

“The number of vessels up for recycling by Maersk Group companies has been limited for the past decade, but in the next five years a larger number of assets owned by the Group will reach end of life. Using only responsible recycling facilities is estimated to incur extra costs of more than 150 million dollars.”

The next day, someone in the communications department presses ‘send’, and a press release hits hundreds of inboxes all over the world, setting the agenda in the shipping business for months.  In these few seconds, Maersk announces that in the future, it will be scrapping its ships at dangerous shipbreaking yards on a polluted beach in India where between 2009 and 2014, sixty-nine people lost their lives and many others were wounded.

But Maersk has a plan.  It will only use one shipyard, which has been certified under the Hong Kong Convention, a new international agreement on responsible ship recycling. Maersk will furthermore require the shipyard to comply with a long series of additional requirements from the company itself, and will have its representatives on site at the Shree Ram shipyard on the west coast of India during the entire shipbreaking process.  The first to be scrapped will be the 20,000-ton container ships Maersk Wyoming and Maersk Georgia.  Maersk’s savings will amount to one-two million US dollars per scrapped ship in comparison with the more responsible and modern shipbreaking operations in China and Turkey that the company has used in the past.

alangMaersk changes course

Maersk explains that their decision will change the industry.  The company will improve the operation’s low standards and contribute to the development of a more sustainable shipbreaking industry in India.

“Today, the majority of ships are dismantled and recycled at facilities on beaches. Here, the standards and practices often do not adequately protect the people working at the facilities and the natural environment. We have decided to play a role in changing this situation. Alone and in partnership with others, we will work to upgrade conditions at recycling facilities on the beaches in the Alang area, India, while we remain committed to responsibly recycle our own ships and rigs,” wrote Niels S. Andersen, administrative director for Maersk, in the company’s Sustainability Report for 2015.

The announcement that Maersk would now be sending its ships to be scrapped at widely-criticised shipyards in India came in sharp contrast to statements made by Jacob Sterling while he was sustainability director at the company.  In a contribution to the shipping blog gcaptain.com on August 30, 2013, Sterling emphasised how dangerous the shipbreaking industry is for human beings and the environment and called for an end to shipbreaking operations on beaches.

“The vast majority of ships are taken to India, Pakistan or Bangladesh to be scrapped on the beach. There is something quite wrong with that…NGOs argue that beaching must end now. We agree. In Maersk Line we have a policy on responsible ship recycling. Since 2006, we have recycled 23 ships responsibly, and we have sent none to the beach.”

In the time since the publication of Sterling’s blog post, the Shree Ram shipyard became certified as compliant with the so-called Hong Kong Convention. Maersk claims that the conditions have been improved to such a degree that it has changed its position and will now allow its ships to be scrapped on open beaches in India.

Danwatch therefore decided to travel to India to find the Maersk Georgia and the Maersk Wyoming and to survey the consequences of the shipbreaking industry.  Is this decision an example of “doing well by doing good,” or has Maersk decided to chase profits instead of the “constant care” required by the company’s motto?

No security

Nitin Pathu pulls his legs up under him on the yellow bamboo bench.  His eyes flicker about as he twists his bony form in an effort to locate his ID papers in a pocket. He has only been working at Shree Ram for a few months, but he is an experienced shipyard hand.  For six years, he has worked breaking up ships at different yards along the Alang beach.  When we show him the picture of the Maersk Wyoming, now beached at the Shree Ram shipyard, Pathu points to its bow with a sooty index finger.

alang3“I helped cut that off,” he says.

He seems happy to be working at the Shree Ram shipyard, despite the fact that neither he nor his colleagues have any job security; he says that none of them have employment contracts, even though it is required by law.  But since Maersk became a customer at Shree Ram, they all figure there will be lots of work for the next few months.  He is content with the safety protocols at the shipyard and isn’t nearly as afraid of getting hurt as he was at the other shipyards.  It’s safer than the others, he explains.

The interview with Nitin Pathu takes place one afternoon in August 2016.  He does not know that in a few hours, a good friend of his will fall off one of the ships and die.  Nor does he know that he may himself be in mortal danger while working at Shree Ram.  Highly explosive gasses are not protected from open flame, and flammable clothing is commonly worn by Pathu and his colleagues, according to Danwatch’s clandestine recordings from the shipyard – to which we shall return.

Pathu is 20 years old and has worked in the area since he was 14.  A few months ago, he got work at the Shree Ram shipyard, where Maersk’s ships are, and one of his first jobs was to cut the bow off the Maersk Wyoming.

“There is often oil on the steel when I’m cutting it. But we usually throw sand on the sheet metal, so we can scrape most of the oil off,” says Pathu, as he shows us the mask he uses while cutting.  This mask cannot protect him from the dangerous smoke that is produced while he cuts with his torch. More on that later.

Pathu is employed as a so-called torch cutter.  His job is to cut the large steel plates off of the ship so they can be recycled in the steel industry.  But it is not without risk, says the young shipyard worker, lifting his shirt to show us the left side of his back.  The light from the doorway shines on his skin to reveal a scar that covers the lower lumbar area.  He says that a ruptured gas canister caused an explosion when he was working at one of the other shipyards on the beach.  He was in the hospital for a month, he says, and received no compensation from his employer.  Now he works for Shree Ram and hopes that if something similar were to happen, he would be compensated.  But he’s not sure, because he has no contract, and he doesn’t know what his rights would be if he were in an accident.

Pressured into silence

A few hundred metres further up the hill sits Kalil Abida.  He has worked at the shipyards in Alang since 2000, and has been at Shree Ram for a long time now.  He says that twenty days earlier, he helped collect oil from one of Maersk’s ships, so he knows the new ships on the beach well.  He shares Pathu’s hopes of compensation, should he be the victim of an accident.  But he doesn’t have a contract either, and doesn’t have any idea what his rights are.  All he knows is that the work at Shree Ram shipyard is dangerous, and he tries to be as careful as he can.

“Sometimes things fall down around me, and there’s a lot that can go wrong. It wasn’t that long ago that a piston fell on my foot.  We work with iron, so you can imagine how that felt,” said Abida.

He invites us into his metal shack, about twelve square metres in size, because he wants to tell us something without being overheard by too many others. In the left-hand corner of the shack hangs a dirty work coat. If you squint you can just make out the orange letters on the coat’s front pocket that say “Shree Ram Group”.

“Shree Ram has accidents, too.  All the shipyards have accidents.  But since we get no pension, and the pay is so low, it’s hard to put much money aside in case something happens.  Maybe the shipyard will pay for my treatment if something happens to me.  But if I were seriously injured, I don’t think they would pay the kind of compensation that my family and I could live on,” says Abida.

He continues. “A little while ago, my boss said that if we complained about the conditions to anyone outside the shipyard, he’d fire us, so I’m uncomfortable because of the insecurity.  I’m afraid that I’ll be fired if Shree Ram finds out what I told you.  But it’s important that you tell other people what’s going on.”

Over the next five days, Danwatch stays inside the area where the ships are being scrapped.  We attempt to gain access to the Shree Ram shipyard to find out if what the workers are saying is true.  But the area is tightly guarded, and since our presence in the beach area is already illegal, we resolve to be patient.

In the meantime, we interview a total of ten randomly chosen Shree Ram shipyard workers. We double-check their papers, ask them about members of Shree Ram’s management, and question them about its facilities, all to ensure that they actually work at that specific shipyard.

The workers tell us that they don’t have a contract, and that no one has anything in writing about their rights.  Some say that they wear masks when working with dangerous particulates, and others say the opposite.  Several wear flammable cotton shirts on the job, even though they are working as torch cutters with flames that can get as hot as 1500ºC.

Click HERE for full report

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