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Swiss shipping company stands accused

Labourers frequently get ill within five years of working on toxic ships. Greenpeace

A delegation of workers from Bangladesh and the environmental group, Greenpeace, have demonstrated in Geneva against what they say are dangerous shipbreaking practices.

They accuse the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) of sending vessels contaminated with toxic materials to developing countries.

The protesters called on the Geneva-based firm to sign an agreement promising to clean up all its ships before sending them to be scrapped.

“Every year about 700 toxic ships are being scrapped in the scrapyards of Asia, in China, India, Bangladesh or Pakistan,” Matthias Wüthrich of Greenpeace Switzerland told swissinfo.

“The deconstruction of those ships is a real risk for the health of the labourer and a real polluting practice for the environment,” he said.

According to Greenpeace, the ships are scrapped manually by workers, exposing them to toxic chemicals in the process.

“They only have small utensils, they do it barefoot with no protection. And after five years, on average, they [the workers] are just rotten. They are ill from exposure to asbestos – there are explosions and accidents every day,” said Wüthrich.

Greenpeace says that 21 contaminated vessels have been sent to Alang in India since 1999.

Not the main offender

Christian Severin, the legal director of MSC, said that his company was concerned about the problem, but was not the main offender as it transported containers.

He said petrol tankers and chemical product transporters were the most dangerous vessels.

Severin said his company would commit itself to examining all vessels before sending them for scrapping, but would not act under pressure from Greenpeace.

“The decontamination of the ships before they are destroyed is a problem that we cannot resolve ourselves,” Severin told swissinfo.

“We have shown goodwill towards Greenpeace. But we will not accept to negotiate under the continuous pressure from the ecologists.”

The company was founded in 1970 and, according to its website, is the second largest carrier of its type in the world.

The Basel Convention regulates the export of special waste across international frontiers. According to Greenpeace, an omission concerning the scrapping of ships allows companies to get round the ban.

swissinfo with agencies

Ships scrapped in 2001 by country:
India: 264
Bangladesh: 80
China: 75
Pakistan: 22
Other: 6 (Source: Greenpeace)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR