Plea for Australia to help protect international shipbreakers

Plea for Australia to help protect international shipbreakers

SBS World News Radio: International unions are calling for increased protection for what many are calling the world's most dangerous profession - ship recycling.  

SBS World News Radio: International unions are calling for increased protection for what many are calling the world's most dangerous profession - ship recycling.


Hundreds of workers spend months breaking up the world's oil and gas tankers and cargo ships on the beaches of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Many work bare handed, in hazardous conditions, with little to no protective equipment.

International unions say it's time the world stepped up and protected the workers.

Earlier this month several explosions tore through a ship being recycled in the Gadani shipyard west of Karachi in Pakistan.

Recent reports showed at least 26 people dead and several more missing, with yet scores more injured in the blasts. The exact cause of the blaze is still being determined.

IndustriALL is the global union body for 50 million workers across 400 unions and 140 different countries. It is lobbying major world governments, including Australia, to ratify a convention it says will save lives and protect those workers.

The United Nations' International Maritime Organisation drafted the convention on ship recycling in Hong Kong in 2009. Known as the Hong Kong Convention, 15 countries must sign it before it can be implemented.

The director of IndustriALL's Ship Building And Ship Breaking Sector, Kan Matsuzaki, says it lays out safety guidelines, hazard awareness and how to protect the environment during the ship's dismantling.

"Every day, the ship-breaking workers are facing a very dangerous situation, exposed to asbestos, toxic substance, oil and gas, and, almost every year, we've found very serious accidents, especially in the three countries, which is India, Bangladesh and Pakistan."

Mr Matsuzaki says those three countries account for nearly 80 per cent of the world's ship recycling.

He says he saw workers two years ago in the same Pakistani shipyard where the explosion occurred wearing no protective equipment.

"Sometimes, they don't have helmets, no proper gloves, and no safety shoes. And when I went to Gadani ship-breaking yard, I was a witness two years ago, some workers totally don't have the gloves, they're just barehanded, and they carry the cut steel. And, every day, they cut their hand by the cut steel. But when they go to the clinics in the ship-breaking yard, there's no doctor at all. They have to wait. The doctor comes to them, but they don't know when."

Mr Matsuzaki was in Perth recently for a meeting with international union delegates to discuss worker safety and environmental concerns in shipyards in south-west Asia.

Joining him on a panel was Indian union delegate and vice chairman of the ship-breaking and -building sector VV Rane.

Mr Rane says the Indian union had fought hard for protection for its workers and, with the help of the country's Supreme Court, implemented laws to protect workers.

"(The) majority of the yards are having ISO* certifications. ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation)certification is, we can say, a pre-requirement of getting the yards compliant with the Hong Kong Convention. And around more than 10 yards apply the Hong Kong Convention requirements, and we are targeting 40 yards will comply the requirement of the Hong Kong Convention very soon."

But Mr Rane says Pakistan and Bangladesh still need world governments to sign the convention before it can be ratified. He says the shipbuilders and their governments have a moral obligation to ensure the ships are recycled safely and correctly.

Australian Manufacture Workers' Union assistant secretary Glenn Thompson says the Australian government could be a leader in the region by signing the convention.

"Well, this is an issue about workers and worker safety. This is not about the politics of unions in Australia. This is about what is the right thing for Australia to do to be a good global citizen."

A Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development spokesman says Australia has a relatively small ocean-going fleet and does not recycle ships on such a large scale.

He says the government acknowledges the concerns about ship recycling in various parts of the world.

He says, although Australia is not considering signing the convention, it acknowledges the convention's significance and will be monitoring its progress into force.


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