Ship breaking on 'the beach of doom'

By Andrew Martin

In the Indian state of Gujarat, 50 kilometres southeast of the city of Bhavnagar, lie the ship-breaking yards of Alang. What was once a pristine beach is being used as a deadly graveyard for the world’s supertankers, container ships, car ferries and naval vessels. Even aircraft carriers are dismantled at Alang. In a fog of smoke and dust, thousands of workers clamber over the skeletons of ships, stripping them, tearing them apart until nothing remains but scrap steel. It is the largest ship-breaking yard in Asia.

Almost 40% of the world’s redundant vessels are scrapped in India for their machinery, steel and cast iron. Alang is known as “the beach of doom”. The ship breakers are usually not provided with any personal protective equipment, and worker mortality at the Alang shipyard has been estimated at one death per day. This is due either to slow death from exposure to a cocktail of deadly chemicals, PCBs, asbestos and lead paint or to the common explosions caused by gas leaks or the torching of residual fuels from uncleaned vessels. Deaths and serious injuries also result from falling steel beams and structures of the ships collapsing. Health and safety regulations are completely absent, the workers often toiling barefoot on the hot steel of the ships.

With more than 2200 single-hull oil tankers being phased out by the end of this decade, the environmental cost is being passed on to poorer nations that have little capacity to safely decommission the ships. Thousands of workers, including children and the elderly, earn less then US$1 a day in the worst conditions imaginable.

New cottage industries

In India alone, 160,000 people are directly employed in the ship-breaking industry, 60,000 of them in Alang. With just about any fitting or item from a ship — from engine parts, sofas and life vests to art work from the cabins — being sold, the industry supports many more. A whole range of “downstream” industries has evolved: a labyrinth of small businesses stripping cables, breaking up asbestos, rolling mills, cleaning pipes — cottage industries worse than anything Dickens could have imagined in 19th century England. The living conditions are almost as bad as the working conditions: makeshift shanty towns with little or no sanitation.

Alang’s huge beach is exploited because of its large variation in tide levels and gentle slope. The ships are driven onto shore at full speed during high tide. However, many ships, particularly passenger ships, become stuck, requiring a slow winching and partial demolition to get them closer to land. After stripping, large parts of ships are cut off and dropped onto the beach. These sections are dragged ashore, mostly by hand, and cut into plate-sized portions for recycling. It is all an extremely labour-intensive process, with no heavy machinery used. The ships are dismantled in and out of the water, and there are no controls to stop contaminants entering the water.

Union formed

The ship breakers have struggled to form their own union with the help of the Steel Metal and Engineering Workers Federation of India and the International Metalworkers Federation. In 2003 a local union embarked on an organising drive in the south of Alang, assisting the workers by providing clean drinking water, safety advice and first aid training and equipment.

In 2006 they extended their efforts to the yards in the north. Early this year, some 250 workers organised a strike under the banner of their newly formed union, the Alang Sosiya Ship Recycling and General Workers Association, after their employer had arbitrarily cut wages.

Under pressure from NGOs such as Greenpeace, the European Parliament passed a resolution on May 21 urging immediate measures to support the development of a “competitive and clean” ship dismantling and remediation (pre-cleaning) industry in the EU, and the development of recycling activities at European shipyards. Even if the member states of the EU implement the proposal, it will do nothing to prevent the ecological crisis that is already occurring in Asia. The infrastructure to dismantle the ships would take many years to build, and the political will to do it isn’t there. The resolution binds the member states to nothing, only calling on them to negotiate a new shipping convention with each other. That could take years.

The longer term ecological catastrophe of ship breaking has been widely publicised by environmental lobby groups, but for the ship breakers, theirs is a daily struggle for survival. There is no welfare apart from what their families provide. They work at Alang in preference to starvation. Their destitution and oppression are all part of the system of imperialist exploitation.

‘World’s biggest democracy’

India is often called “the world’s biggest democracy”, but it is not by any means independent of the advanced capitalist nations such as Britain, the US and the members of the EU. After the abolition of slavery, British capital looked to India for cheap labour, and it reaped huge economic gains by conscripting Indian labourers and sending them to the outskirts of its empire. British capital viewed India as an inexhaustible source of riches.

Such was the extortion of India’s wealth that, by the end of the 19th century, Britain’s balance of payments hinged on exports from India. It was naked plunder. The drain of wealth and increased taxation to prop up Britain in World War I increased inflation. The price of food soared, and living standards for the majority of Indians declined. The war also sharpened class divisions inside India. Widespread British repression failed to halt a tide of worker and peasant risings between 1919 and 1921. A movement against colonial rule took shape.

The rising Indian capitalists established a foothold in the Indian Congress, which was an alliance between sections of the developing Indian capitalist class and the urban and rural middle class. They found their spokesperson in Mahatma Gandhi, who sought friendship with the aristocratic landlords, the zamindars. Gandhi was unequivocal in his support for Indian capitalism, stating: “In India we want no political strikes ... We must gain control over all the unruly and disturbing elements ... We seek not to destroy capital or capitalists, but to regulate the relations between capital and labour. We want to harness capital to our side. It would be folly to encourage sympathetic strikes.”

The Second World War also had a profound effect on India. Japanese military forces drove through Southeast Asia from the end of 1941 and in the space of four months swept British forces out of Malaya, Singapore and Burma and threatened to bring the empire in India to an end too. The end of the war aggravated things further by shifting the balance of power between the US and Britain so that the US became the dominant imperialist power in Asia and the rest of the globe.

India’s independence was accompanied by an intensification of the drive to exploit its labour, not just by Britain, but by most of the developed world in order to feed capitalism’s rapacious appetite for profits. Imperialist finance capital concentrates power in the hands of billionaires who enmesh countries such as India in a net of financial and diplomatic dependence. In his 1916 book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin noted: “Finance capital finds most ‘convenient’, and derives the greatest profits from, a form of subjection which involves the loss of political independence of the subjected countries and peoples.” However, Lenin also recognised that the formal political independence of such subjected countries would not end their domination by the financial oligarchies of the developed capitalist countries since “the domination of finance capital”, that is the capital of the super-rich families who own the First World’s big industrial corporations and banks, “is not abolished by any reforms in the sphere of political democracy, and [national] self-determination belongs wholly and exclusively to this sphere”. Economically still an imperialist colony, India has had its economic and social development distorted by its exploitation and oppression within the world imperialist system created by finance capital.

The neoliberal “free market” — imposed in recent decades by imperialist institutions such as the World Bank and touted by the Indian capitalist rulers as a solution to India’s capitalistic underdevelopment — has done nothing to alleviate the country’s widespread poverty. According to the latest World Bank figures, one third of India’s population (roughly equivalent to the entire population of the US) lives below the World Bank’s international poverty line of US$1.25 per day. The World Bank further estimates that 33% of the world’s poor people live in India. Moreover, 75.6% of India’s population has a daily income below $2, compared to 72.2% for sub-Saharan Africa, often regarded as the world’s most impoverisheed region.

While surging metal prices have made ship breaking a lucrative industry for a small handful of entrepreneurs, the environment and the thousands of workers employed in this industry have suffered the worst abuses imaginable. The contradiction between the aspirations of poor people for a better future and the capitalist profit system is irreconcilable. This contradiction drives the creation of movements such as the Alang Sosiya Ship Recycling and General Workers Association that seek to use the collective strength of the workers to fight social injustice.

The task facing the working class of all countries is to further this organisation and take up the demands of all the oppressed, replacing the subjection of labour to the imperialist transnational monopolies with the democratic control of collectively organised labour — that is, with socialism.