Exposing toxic trade in disguise - Part 2

Background - 19 June, 2003
The second part of our three-week tour through Europe brings us to Switzerland and the UK. For the people from India and Bangladesh, this means new opportunities to bring the ground realities of breaking old toxic ships to stakeholders in Europe and to involve them in the solutions.

Shipbreaking campaigners, Ramapati and Sunita, hand over a ships bell from a toxic ship scrapped in Asia to British government officials.

10 -11 June 2003

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.

Together 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 MSC.

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 (ICS).

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?