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Action in shipbuilding and shipbreaking

In his opening speech, Kenichi Kanda, sector co-chair, talked about the importance of protecting workers’ safety:

Action in shipbuilding and shipbreaking

“This action group is advancing workers’ rights and we are seeing improvements. But there are still too many lives lost in this industry.”

Since China banned shipbreaking last year, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh account for 92 per cent of the gross tonnage of shipbreaking in the world.

India is in the process of adopting a new shipbreaking act for the industry. Although there is still work to be done, Rane Vidyadhar Vasuedo from SMEFI reported on an industry taking important steps forward; social dialogue has been initiated, and there have been improvements in working conditions and health and safety, including a new hospital. There have been investment in sustainable shipbreaking and 80 per cent of shipbreaking facilities in the country are green.

Nadir Aziz, from NTUF, painted a bleaker picture from Pakistan. Working conditions for the around 10,000 who toil in shipbreaking are characterized by low wages, a lack of safety measures like gloves and helmets, and no access to clean drinking water. Private contractors run the canteen, accommodation and the one ambulance at extortionate prices and sub-standard quality.

“Accidents have declined in India, but in Bangladesh, 14 people have already died this year. This difference shows the importance of complying with international standards and we owe it to the workers to clean up the industry,”

said IndustriALL assistant general secretary Atle Høie, urging for increased campaigning for the ratification of the Hong Kong Convention on safe shipbreaking.

So far, 13 countries have ratified the convention, which needs 15 signatory countries, representing 40 per cent of the gross tonnage of merchant shipping and on average 3 per cent of recycling tonnage, to enter into force.

Country experiences in shipbuilding

The shipbuilding industry globally is seeing an influx of migrant workers; in some countries, up to 30 per cent of the workforce are migrant workers, predominately from China, Vietnam, Philippines, Poland and Romania. 

The Netherlands, for example, has seen a massive increase of migrant workers in an arrangement which benefits agencies and employers, but leaves workers in a situation where they are not informed of their rights and can’t access the national social security system and pensions. In a precarious situation, making a complaint may land you on the street.

The action-group underlined the importance of defending the rights of migrant workers and a wish for collective agreements to include rights for them.

For a long time, workers in Chile’s shipbuilding sector were not allowed to join a union, as it was considered a military sector. Since organizing became legal, Mikel Gotzon Capetillo Cardenas from Constramet reported that 80 per cent of the workers in his yard are unionized. However, the law still curbs basic union rights like negotiating a collective agreement.

The Korean Metal Workers’ Union is fighting back the merger between Hyundai Heavy Industries and Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering. The union has held a series of strikes over the last months which have seen permanent and contract workers standing side by side.

Action in shipbuilding and shipbreaking

The company has responded by disciplining more than 1,000 workers by dismissals, not paying salaries, as well as freezing the union bank account and suspending negotiations on the collective agreement.

Women are underrepresented in both shipbuilding and shipbreaking. Shipbreaking creates numerous, most often informal, work downstream from the yards. In India, women recycling plastics and scrap metal downstream have been organized by the Self Employed Women Association.

When we fight back, we win

In 2013, Australian union AMWU launched a campaign to “design, build and maintain our ships here”. The campaign ran for three years, mobilized workers and communities and lobbied politicians. Ultimately it saved jobs in the shipbuilding industry, and “they are good, well-paid jobs”. 

To gain strength and speak with one voice, four Australian unions in the industry have come together to form the Australian Shipbuilding Federation of Unions (ASFU).

“The ASFU coordinates and streamlines the use of resources. It’s a show of solidarity and strength when dealing with employers, the government and the industry. Together, we organize and build industry power.”

said Glen Thompson.

Concluding the two days of meeting, Kan Matsuzaki, IndustriALL shipbuilding-shipbreaking director, said:

“Incorporating shipbreaking into this group in 2011 made us stronger and has led to an expansion of solidarity. We will continue to support each other, and to organize, educate and train for a sustainable future in the sector.”

In 2020, the action group will continue to defend workers’ rights and build union power, specifically:

  • Increase campaigning on the Hong Kong Convention
  • Improve women’s participation in the industry
  • Develop existing trade union networks (Fincantieri, BAE and Naval)
  • Research on multinational companies and their supply chains
  • Explore possibilities to negotiate global framework agreements
  • In depth mapping on precarious and migrant workers
  • Share good practices on limiting precarious work
  • Continued solidarity support for KMWU fight against merger
  • Promote the revised ILO code of practice


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