CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 7 . . . . November 24, 2006
When I was younger, we would spend part of our summers in Port Colborne, ON. Each day, I would hope that at least one freighter would come through the Welland Canal so we would have no choice but to watch it. The ships that I remember are probably no longer seaworthy, and, to be honest, I never thought much what happens to an old freighter when it outlives its usefulness. Thanks to Shipbreakers, that question has been answered.
Canada, the United States and Europe once dismantled their own ships, but, with environmental laws and worker protection, this became too expensive. Now, decommissioned ships are bought by shipbreakers in Alang, India, who are very willing to accept as many as possible. One ship can provide work for 500 workers for six months. Some 40,000 men are employed on the 10 kilometre stretch of beach at Alang. With hundreds of ships waiting to be taken apart, workers flock to the area in search of work. Once an agricultural area, Alang has become heavily industrial. The materials from the ships: binders, books, mattresses, washing machines, small motors - anything usable - are all resold. The ship's metals are removed and used in various processes, then sold or reused. There are a thousand trucks, and they are all employed. According to the film, the ships at Alang feed a million mouths. If anything was to affect the ships’ coming to Alang, all related industries would die.
Shipbreakers should be an optimistic film. Old ships are dismantled, the parts are recycled providing employment for thousands of needy workers and a varied economy exists in an area that once had little to offer. Unfortunately, according to Shipbreakers, this is a recycle nightmare.
Early in the film, the narrator states that the ships "come to Alang to die, and men will die with them." This is one of the biggest recycling operations in the world, but it is also the one of the biggest disasters. The film focuses on Mita, a young man from a small village that had nothing to offer him in the way of employment. In order to help his family, he ran off to work in the shipbreaking yards. Because his brother died doing this kind of work, Mita's parents are distraught that he has chosen to go this route. Whenever he calls home, they beg him to return, but he says he cannot. The film states, "The job that might kill them is their only hope of survival."
Ships are run aground at a pre-arranged area. One ship featured early in the film is a Brazilian chemical tanker which has been at sea for 30 years. Once the vessel’s aground, the men begin to dismantle it. The ship is the size of an apartment block and is ten storeys high. The men work in 50 degree Celsius temperatures and breathe in fumes without any masks. The gas cutters have the most prestigious jobs, but they have no formal training. They learn on the job and by trial and error. One man admits he cut the sheet of metal on which he was working and fell to the bottom of the ship. The ships are supposed to be cleared of any dangerous gasses, but, in one ship, when the gas cutter hit an uncleared gas line, the following explosion killed five and wounded six more. There is no hospital in the area. There is no union protection. One man is shown using his gloved hand as a visor as he cuts through metal with the gas torch. Mita admits that he cannot consider getting married as he does not make enough money to support a family. His uncle, after 20 years of working as a shipbreaker, is going blind and his feet are badly burned. The workers are housed 10 to 12 men in a room. They live in a shanty town with no running water or latrines, and the shack in which they live in is on land that oozes toxins.
The shipbreaking business brings in a billion dollars a year. However, the shipbreaker yard owners feel pressure from other countries who are also willing to accept ships. For this reason, they demand that the men work harder and faster. Ships arrive containing asbestos, radioactive material, lead-based paint, PCBs, heavy metals. All of these toxins find their way into the air. According to a Greenpeace report, one ship can carry as much as 20 tonnes of asbestos. One kilo is dangerous. The fumes inhaled by the workers are compared to 10 to 15 packs of cigarettes smoked in a day. To relieve this hazard, the company doctor interviewed suggests that the men should work up-wind. If environmental legislation were to come into effect immediately, decades would pass before this area would be clean.
Another ship arrives for dismantling, the Tulip from Norway. However, Greenpeace knows this ship by another name and had it on their most toxic list until it disappeared. Then it was bought and sold by Libya, made its way through a number of other countries and has come to Alang flying a "bogus flag." The workers cheer its arrival. They embrace a fatalistic approach to their work. One in four will get cancer. While there are no official records, 8 out of 10 are estimated to be hurt, and 300 will die each year. "Every day one ship; every day one death." Mitra states, "I will not give up my life for my employer," but then admits that he is "caught here" and does not know how he will be able to leave.
Shipbreaking is a very disturbing film. This is a complex issue, and the many sides to the discussion are given detailed discussion. The visuals show the nature and danger of the work. The booming economy is also presented with the clear message that this area needs this industry. No neat solutions are provided, although at the end, information is provided that the Indian government is looking into enacting regulations. However, if other countries welcome the ships without similar regulations, then they can offer the work that much more cheaply. The number of ships to arrive for dismantling is expected to double, so clearly on a global scale there is high demand for this industry.
As far as school applicability, the film is rather long. While Shipbreaking has value in Economics, Geography, Ecology, or any class working with moral issues, the students may not be overly receptive. The film would be best housed at the school board level, perhaps in a professional collection. Shipbreakers presents an important message, but the film should not be shown in its entirety to a class.
Recommended with reservations.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.