10 -11 June 2003
Shipbreaking campaigners, Ramapati and Sunita, hand over a ships bell from a toxic ship scrapped in Asia to British government officials.
All of us arrived in Switzerland safely. We meet up in a small
Indian restaurant in Geneva to catch up and to prepare for the
upcoming meetings. It is a bit strange this landlocked nation has a
connection with the shipbreaking industry. It still surprises me
that a shipping company can be anywhere on this globe, with no
connection whatsoever to the reality on board ships.
The Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) has its headquarters in
Geneva. The company owned several vessels that were sent for scrap
to India or Bangladesh in the recent past. Only recently we all
boarded the MSC INSA that is currently in a dry dock in Antwerp.
This vessel is likely to be sent to Asia for scrapping soon and if
it is not cleaned beforehand, it will cause pollution when it is
scrapped. Needless to say we look beyond this one ship, and we
would expect the company to extend a policy to clean ships prior to
export, and hopefully to its entire fleet.
with activists from Greenpeace in Switzerland we walked up to the
office of MSC. We have brought ship bells here with us. They came
from toxic ships sent from Europe to India for scrap. We want to
present one of these bells to MSC as a symbol of the responsibility
they have in preventing the export of hazardous substances in their
vessels. The office is located in a quiet lush area of the city.
When we arrived, Ramapati and Salim, a shipbreaker from Bangladesh,
rang the two bells. Over the weekend MSC had denied that there was
a need for a meeting in Geneva. Yet, one of the senior managers, Mr
Formisano, met us outside and invited our delegation to come in.
Once inside the luxurious meeting room we informed the senior
management of the company about the dangers of shipbreaking. The
gentlemen listen carefully and were even shocked by the dangers
people face while breaking ships. The company clearly understood
that it has a role to play and seemed to have room for changing its
old habits. The discussions were sometimes heated in the way
opinions and views were expressed, but it certainly helps to get a
real picture of the current situation in Asia as well as within
Competition between breaking countries, as well as competition
between shipping companies, is hard. This means that a 'level
playing field' is needed. In other words MSC agrees with us that
mandatory rules for the entire sector are needed. Until these exist
it sees no room for manoeuvring as an individual company.
Next on our schedule is a meeting with the Swiss authorities.
Switzerland has already made it clear that the construction of a
new shipbreaking yard in unspoilt Guinea Buissau is a bad idea. Now
we'll find out from the authorities what its policy is on exporting
hazardous materials and whether or not the Swiss government has the
intention of sticking to the Basel Convention when it comes to the
export of contaminated vessels for breaking. The officials were
clearly moved by our presentations. It is clear that they saw a
need to change the current status quo as only this can make a real
change in the life of people like Salim, who have to work in the
shipbreaking yards. The Swiss authorities, like MSC, agree with us
that mandatory rules need to be set up. It is also clear that they
see a responsibility for ship owners in preventing further
environmental and social destruction in Asia. The Basel Convention
should apply to contaminated ships for scrap and should be the
basis of any future regulations.
12-13 June 2003
After meeting individual ship owners, time had come to meet with
the federations that promote the interests of ship owners in
general. After our meetings in Switzerland, The Netherlands and
Greece, Ramapati was optimistic about what we could expect from the
federations. After all, they represent the owners and the owners so
far have supported our call for mandatory rules and have all
accepted the ship bells as symbols of responsibility. It seemed
clear that the shipping industry is ready to move forward on this
important issue and abandon its old bad habits. Due to accidents in
the London subway, we arrived at the building late. When we got
there we carried the heavy bell from the Alang shipbreaking yard
with us to offer to the International Chamber of Shipping
Two hours later, Ramapati walks on to the streets of London,
still carrying the bell that was meant for ICS. They refused to
accept it, just as they refused to take any responsibility for the
environmental and social problems related to shipbreaking. In fact,
ICS's representative bluntly stated that the workers in
shipbreaking yards are the ones that generate the hazardous
materials and cause pollution the moment they start breaking the
ships. This is a slap in the face of thousands of workers in
Chittagong and Alang. This is a knife in the back of the families
that have lost men who died while breaking ships.
Sunita Dubey, who represents an Indian organisation, cannot
believe it. She has been involved in court cases in India on
shipbreaking since 1996 and knows all the sensitivities from all
different angles. The refusal of ICS to accept the ship bell comes
as a shocking revelation. "Clearly these federations are denying
reality. It is up to politicians in Europe and the International
Maritime Organisation to find a solution to this. If we wait for
these federations to change, more people will suffer and our oceans
will be totally polluted."
This meeting in the UK turned out to be only the first slam in
the face of our Indian colleagues. The next day we learn from an
expert on IMO culture, processes and protocols, that we should have
no hope for a solution from IMO. "Poor Asian people dying due to
hazardous ships are simply not enough of a priority," we are told.
"Try Europe, but forget the IMO."
We definitely need something more positive, less ugly. Next is a
visit to Lloyd's, the beautiful London building that houses the
world's most famous insurance company. We learn that any ship
involved in illegal matters is confronted with an expiry of its
insurance. Trying to understand the implications for ship owners
who do not follow the rules originating from the Basel Convention,
we conclude that they indeed act illegally. Does this mean that
every year around 600 vessels sail their final voyage without any
insurance covering ship, crew of cargo? Our visit to Lloyd's opens
a new window through which the issue needs to be looked at. We
leave the UK less optimistic than we arrived.
We return to Antwerp to make more visits to ships, captains and
crews. Meeting real people working on real ships is a relief.
Captains not only understand the issue; they are also concerned
about the people and environment in India. One captain is member of
an organisation that promotes clean oceans worldwide, and he cannot
understand why his organisation has not spoken out on this so far.
It is clear, people on board ships support our call for urgent
changes, and people in boardrooms will not do anything unless there
is a politician telling them to. But which politician will speak on
behalf of the environment and workers in Asia?