The International Dump Yard Economy

Businesses, sectors or industries that raise ire with policy makers and/or activists in one country, will often search for loopholes in countries with weak governance in order to set up shop. One such industry that has recently been mired by controversy and guilty of this tactic is ship breaking. Workers are exposed to radioactive and carcinogenic materials and metals from the ships, or the cargoes the carried by the ships.  

Originally, ships were broken down where they were built, but high costs have led to a shift of this industry to the fragile coasts of South Asia. Consequently, the term “international dump yard” is quickly becoming the pseudonym for these shores. These apprehensions are especially valid for those ships carrying toxic waste that have otherwise been refused treatment on shores elsewhere. And while technically laws designed to safeguard local interests are on the books in these countries, it is the tacit bypassing of these regulations that poses the real problem.

While increasing environmental hazards and cost of labor across the world have resulted in ships being brought to China, Bangladesh and India for dismantling, the creation of these new dumping grounds has neither reduced the ecological vulnerability of the industry, nor the danger to its workers. Unfortunately, these risks are overlooked because of otherwise non-existent economic opportunities for poor people living in these countries.

Had the industry not been booming in the past year, perhaps the legal and political management of this sector would have been easier. While the global economic downturn is resulting in increasing unemployment across advanced economies, places like India have benefitted from ships going out of business. Alang, a city on the coast of Gujarat in India, for example, has received more ships in the last month alone than it did in a whole year prior to 2008.

At the same time, no journalist or media person is allowed to enter the coast to take note of the way work is being done. However, visiting UN officials have criticized the health and safety standards of these sites stating, “Semi-skilled and unskilled workers live in makeshift facilities lacking basic sanitation facilities, electricity and even safe drinking water.”

While on the one hand, in a country where people have to resort to manual scavenging of human feces because of lack of jobs or living standards, sectors like these are at least increasing employment opportunities (in fact, paying wages higher than in other industries) for the poorest. These industries, whilst risky in themselves, provide an option to laborers to at least earn their daily income with a little more dignity.

What activists should be seeking is better governance of safety measures and stricter entries of what sort of waste can be dumped on the shores, as opposed to condemning the whole industry itself. More specifically, in countries where internal governance is weak, perhaps international bodies – either activist organizations or the creation of a global watch group for this sector ­– can seek to fill in the missing gap.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons