The ship-breaking industry attracts fierce attention, notorious for the grievous injuries and fatalities of its workers. In nations such as Bangladesh, it has developed haphazardly. The ship-breaking yards operate with little planning and deplorable working conditions.
Once sold, tankers and cargo ships are driven onto the shores; ill-equipped and often underage workers break these apart for scrap. By drawing on classical approaches to ethics, we consider the industry’s complex implications.
“If I don’t work, our family won’t survive.” Muhammed Abdul Qadir, ship-breaker
Responsibility disintegrates as soon as the ships are sold for scrap. This primarily occurs in regions of the world where labour costs are cheapest, and where health and safety regulations and labour laws are almost non-existent.
The disposal of ships in these areas results in people finding otherwise non-existent work. Without the ship-breaking industry, impoverished locals and migrants would be deprived of this way to engage in the productive economy. By companies disposing of ships unviable for maritime use, all of the scrap material is harvested – contributing to Bangladesh’s fledgling steel industry (e.g. 90% of its iron consumption).The importance of this industry to the economic situation of the nation is evidenced by the 10 billion Bangladeshi taka (£86 million) generated in tax revenue each year.
From a utilitarian standpoint, the industry could be ethically justified by its sheer boost to the nation’s industrial sector, by means of monetary gains, and the harvesting of resources. To rely on a utilitarian approach to ethics, the mere existence of the industry could be viewed as creating the greatest good for the greatest number. The tax revenue generated could ideally be used to fund social schemes, such as improved housing and sanitation with improvements in national infrastructure. Considering market competition, there are claims that more stringent regulations could make costs prohibitively expensive for scrappage companies which could simply move elsewhere, taking the employment and economic benefits with them and leaving the local workforce destitute.
Conversely, such an application of this ethical justification recognises ‘good’ only in economic terms, and acts to obscure the exploitation of the workers involved. The key component of utilitarian theory is that an action is ethically justified only if the summation of pleasure is greater than the summation of suffering. This leads to the issue of quantifying pleasure and suffering. Is it fair to disregard the horrendous suffering experienced by the ship-breakers for the economic impact the industry bears in their society?
“If you die in the field, no problem.” Mohammed Murad, ship-breaker
Mohammed Murad worked in the ship-breaking industry for 10 years. That was until an incident in 2010, where whilst conducting his normal cutting duty, a 20-ton blade of disfigured ship sheared from directly above, crushing one of his legs. Lucky to escape with his life, Mohammed sought compensation from the yard he worked for. They refused. Fortunately for Mohammed, an environmental lawyer was paid for by CNN, enabling him to get some compensation. Accidents such as this are not a rare occurrence, and unfortunately, nearly all of the decrepit, disfigured and dead don’t have the financial resources to get the compensation they deserve. Mohammed’s case is just one example from a plethora of cases where workers sustain serious injury by means of structural collapse, explosions and poisoning. The average lifespan of workers is just 40 years old.
Many of these injuries and deaths could be avoided if a culture of health and safety, as in the developed world, was promoted – allowing workers to conduct their jobs with sufficient equipment, training and safety precautions.
We cannot avoid that the workers at the final stages of the ship’s life-cycle are vulnerable. Care ethics presents a framework to provide due care to all relevant stakeholders. As the relationships between stakeholders is complex and disrupted, ethical responsibility is severed, particularly by the sale of the ships in decommissioning. An approach incorporating care ethics values concern for the people at risk, and necessitates proactive measures to minimise this. For example, the ships contain large amounts of hazardous material such as asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB’s), which are carcinogenic and associated with long term health effects. Such risk can be evaluated and managed accordingly. For example, engineers could implement better containment of these dangerous materials and substances, making ship-breaking a less dangerous affair.
Here, we still acknowledge that many risks cannot be mitigated by ship owners, for example the poor practices locally which contribute to the majority of injuries to workers on the yards. The local implementation of measures to ensure workers are correctly trained, provided with the correct PPE equipment and compensated adequately is needed. One such method is oversight by the shipping companies conducting business only with yards that practice to safer standards. Examples of this can be seen already, such as with the introduction of the EU’s waste shipment regulation, but so far only mixed results have been achieved, as on the 15th March 2018, Seatrade was fined and two executives were banned from the industry for violating the EU regulations.
Conclusion: What can be done?
This is a multifaceted problem, with no clear-cut solution. The socioeconomic ramifications of applying tighter regulations are powerful, with potential to lead to business moving elsewhere, severely hindering Bangladesh’s economy. However, the shipping industry has a duty and professional responsibility to acknowledge the high likelihood their ships will be decommissioned in these regions, so safety precautions and procedures must be implemented. A lack of concern for safety by the industry leads to needless loss of life. Whilst it’s hard to agree upon the exact changes to be made, it is undeniable that there must be action.