Aliağa, Turkey

Shipbroken: EU inspectors ignore lethal practices at Turkish shipyards

Shipbreaking is one of the world’s most dangerous jobs. Can the EU keep workers safe?

By Zeynep Şentek, Vedat Örüç
04 October 2023

The workers will get sick. They’ll probably be dead in the next ten years. Or maybe twenty. The trio of independent asbestos experts can’t agree on the exact prognosis, but do agree on the diagnosis: if the substance in the video is asbestos, then the workers will almost certainly succumb to fatal lung diseases within the next few decades.

We showed three independent asbestos experts video footage, taken on a mobile phone in January this year, of workers at Kılıçlar shipbreaking yard in Aliağa, the heart of Turkey’s shipbreaking industry. The men casually toss into a large bin broken pieces of interior walls from a cargo ship Kılıçlar purchased to sell for scrap.

One is unmasked and the other man’s mask is unfit for purpose. Both are devoid of proper protective clothing. There is no containment tent or decontamination procedures and no safety supervisor. Operating without these legally required precautions means there is little to prevent the deadly microscopic fibres from infecting their lungs or floating on the breeze to neighbouring shipyards and towns, where they might infect others.

Efnan Aribas, a 25-year expert in asbestos removal, from Belgium, told The Black Sea, “It’s not only that they’re collecting it badly, without proper gear. They’re throwing the stuff. The fibres are now all around in the air,” he said. “These men will become sick in ten years and later die.”

The second video, from inside the ship, shows several workers handling the material, which is strewn across the floor. A close-up of the debris clearly reveals a fibrous substance. In reaction to this footage, Aribas said “This is 100% asbestos. I can recognise it anywhere.”

Two other experts stated that while they cannot say for certain without proper testing, they have high confidence that what is being recklessly handled is asbestos. “If this is indeed asbestos,” said another expert, Mehmet Ensari, “these workers will be dead in an average of 20 years.”

This level of exposure likely has one outcome: a death sentence from asbestosis or mesothelioma cancer of the lungs. There is no cure for either disease and a single fibre is enough to kill. A doctor to whom we showed the video called it “heartbreaking to see."

The footage was provided to The Black Sea by employees at the Kılıçlar shipbreaking company, owned by the Turkish Kılıç family. Astonishingly, in December 2022, barely a month before the events depicted in the videos, the EU’s Directorate-General for the Environment inspected the Kılıçlar yard to approve it for placement onto the EU’s List of Ship Recycling. This is an exclusive directory of 48 global shipbreaking companies that are legally permitted to ‘break up’ EU-flagged vessels. Inspectors gave the company a glowing report and the EU formally approved it to the European List in July, despite being warned of problems at the yard.

We visited Aliağa, the epicentre of Turkey’s shipbreaking industry for 50 years, where nine out of the 22 shipyards are on the European List, and talked to more than two dozen former and current shipbreakers, occupational safety officers, doctors, and experts, about Kılıçlar’s safety practices and industry as a whole. The picture of Aliağa is one of a culture of rampant negligence for worker safety and environmental laws.

The evidence and testimonies we collected make a mockery of the EU Directorate-General Environment’s approval process. Many shipbreakers routinely and openly flout Turkish and EU regulations, workers allege, and Kılıçlar's violations, in particular, are well documented. The EU knew the company was reckless with asbestos removal and endangering worker lives after similar offences became public only months earlier.

Kılıçlar did not respond to The Black Sea's questions. And the European Commission and Directorate-General for Environment did not reply by the time of publication.

“Mind your own business”

When it comes to asbestos, workers at Kılıçlar know what to look for. In June 2022, six months before the EU’s inspection, and seven months after an initial visit, a passenger ship, called ILOS, docked at Kılıçlar’s shipyard for dismantling. The vessel was owned by Crete-based Anen Lines, bought from Greece’s bankrupt Maritime Company of Lesvos by one of its former board members, Saravelakis S. Kiriakos.

Two Kılıçlar employees, who spoke with The Black Sea on condition of anonymity, worked on both ships. Şafak* became suspicious when he was prevented from boarding it, and asked a manager about asbestos. “The manager told me to mind my own business,” he said.

When he was finally onboard, he witnessed fellow workers stuffing plasterboard and other detritus into garbage bags without any of the proper equipment or clothing. He took pictures. “I sent the photos to our union rep,” Şafak said, who asked him to smuggle out a sample in a sealed bag for analysis.

Mehmet Ensari arranged for the sample to be tested at an independent lab. The results confirmed amosite, the most lethal type of asbestos. Furious workers promptly demanded proper hazmat suits and masks, but management scoffed. “They told us not to exaggerate,” Şafak said. Workers got dust masks only.

Anen Lines did not reply to The Black Sea’s questions.

When the same thing happened again this January, they were ready. Burak, who was present on both ships, said that in January he and others were given “a few hours of training” days before the unnamed ship arrived. “[Managers] made me sign a paper, calling it an asbestos removal worker certificate. They said, ‘You will now clean the asbestos on the new ship.’ ”

Shipyards can train their staff to become ‘asbestos removal workers’. Although the training is in-house and without independent assessment, EU inspections accept this as sufficient evidence towards a shipyard’s hazardous material compliance.

“No one asked anything after that,” Burak said. “They only gave me a dust mask.” It was then that Şafak shot the video footage, shared with The Black Sea.

Şafak told us that he refused to work on the second ship. “I said ‘This is asbestos. It was also on the previous ship, and you had us remove some of it. I can't work like this.’”

He and others tried to warn the workers and managers about improper protocols. “How many times have I told them not to work like this?” he said. “They didn't listen. They gave me gloves and a dust mask and said nothing would happen [to us]. That's when we took these videos, just in case it would be needed later.”

After his outburst, Kılıçlar assigned Şafak to a different department for a while but eventually fired him.

When the ILOS story hit the Turkish press in July 2022 there was public outrage, but Kılıçlar faced no repercussions from the Turkish authorities or the EU, which was in the process of certifying the yard and had its own concerns.

In its first report into Kılıçlar, in October last year, the EU inspection team noted that workers were "likely" undertaking asbestos removal under dangerous conditions. "The facility has not demonstrated that its workers are trained and authorised for such works, nor is it known if the workers are equipped with sufficient protective equipment to perform such works,” the report said.

When the European Commission proposed Kılıçlar for approval on the European List in April this year, the Shipbreaking Platform submitted a consultation report that outlined serious problems at the yard, including the ILOS scandal and the EU's own previous concerns about asbestos practices.

When the inspection team returned in December, Kılıçlar claimed that it had not dealt with asbestos for several years, but had, nevertheless, recently signed a contract with an external expert company for any future asbestos jobs, which it provided. Both of these claims appear to be deliberate falsehoods.

The EU didn't care one way or the other. In July, the commission went forward with approving the yard in a document signed by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

“Asbestos is no joke. It doesn’t forgive a mistake; it kills for it”

Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous material the use of which dates back thousands of years. After the industrial revolution, it was commonly installed in buildings, schools, and ships as a fire retardant and insulator. It poses little risk unless disturbed, meaning the biggest dangers are for those in construction, demolition, and shipbreaking industries. Once inhaled, the fibrous dust often lies undetected for decades before wreaking havoc in the lungs, leading to cancer, asbestosis or mesothelioma. The survival rate is low. For men diagnosed after fifty, barely 7% will live five years.

By law, asbestos workers must wear special underwear under a hooded hazmat suit, thick gloves, and a full-face mask connected to an oxygen tank. Their wrists and ankles should be duct-taped to prevent any fibres from sneaking inside.

So serious are the concerns over exposure that each time a worker enters or leaves the site, they must pass through a decontamination tent, where they dispose of their clothes, shower in the mask before throwing away its filter. When they return to work, it is in a completely fresh outfit.

Occupational cancer is one of the top causes of work-related deaths, according to the EU, and “as much as 78% of occupational cancers recognised in the Member States are related to asbestos” As one expert says, “Asbestos is no joke. It doesn’t forgive a mistake; it kills for it.”

The paranoia appears to have escaped some of the companies in Aliağa. A former ship safety officer in Turkey, who now works at a European industrial cleaning and asbestos removal company, told us that they were invited to bid for work at an EU-approved yard in Aliağa. “After we explained the necessary process of hazmat suits and air-tight tents, the managers looked at each other and laughed,” she said. They balked at the costs.

Asbestos-proof overalls cost as little as €1 each. “They laughed at me and at one point it was clear they weren’t even listening.” When she told her boss about the meeting, “he decided we didn’t want to have anything to do with Turkish shipbreakers” who didn’t take asbestos seriously.

“Absolutely do not engage with the inspectors”

Shipbreaking has become big business in Turkey. Commercial ships, like freighters, oil tankers, and even cruise ships, have a shelf life of two or three decades. They become obsolete, dirty, dangerous to run. But even the most unseaworthy vessels - known as ‘end-of-life’ ships - contain many thousands of tonnes of valuable scrap metal. This attracts shipbreakers.

Disposing of a 100-thousand-tonne cargo ship is not like crushing a car. “Breaking up” a ship takes time and is among the filthiest and most dangerous jobs a person can do, according to the International Labour Organisation. It also has devastating consequences for the local environment.

Obeying laws and regulations costs time and money. In Turkey, shipyards can offer around $325 per tonne for a vessel, compared to an average of $100 in the EU yards. This is attractive for European shipowners. But to stay competitive, Turkish yards must work faster and looser. Safety eats profits and cutting corners can help the bottom line.

For decades, European shipowners sent their decrepit vessels to Bangladesh and India, both notorious even today for, “abysmal working conditions, fatal accidents, exploitation of child workers, and severe pollution of the marine environment as well as the dumping of hazardous wastes,” according to a recent report by the Shipbreaking Platform.

A series of investigations into poor work practices in these countries led the EU to prohibit European shipping companies from using unapproved shipbreakers anywhere in the world. On 30 December, 2013, it created the European List.

Turkey's shipbreaking business is concentrated in Aliağa, with nine shipyards certified by the EU, the highest of any country. In theory, this standard requires every approved yard to “comply with a number of safety and environmental requirements.” It regulates proper equipment and protective clothing, disposal and handling of hazardous substances, like asbestos, and measures to prevent contamination of the local environment and seas. This is all overseen by an occupational safety officer.

Putting on a show for EU inspectors is not difficult, workers told us, because shipyards know the inspection dates months in advance. “When there is an inspection,” Ali, a shipbreaking worker, told us, “they replenish workers as if they are pimping up a car. Sometimes they give us the highest quality protective equipment, but when the inspectors leave, they take it back.”

Another experienced shipbreaker, Ahmet, now employed at EU-approved BMS, but present during EU inspections at several yards over the years, explained that managers routinely ensure that no ship is being dismantled during the inspectors’ visits. Everything is cleaned up beforehand and most workers are sent on annual or unpaid leave or given only light duties, he said. “They tell us absolutely not to engage with the inspectors and not to make loud noises,” Ahmet added.

EU inspectors first visited the Kılıçlar yard on 22 November, 2021, and again on 14 December 2022. The final report states that on each occasion there either was little work being carried out or there was no ship in the yard. “The plot had been tidied and cleaned prior to the inspection,” the inspector wrote.

Alp Ergor, a former inspector and now professor of public health at Dokuz Eylul University in Izmir, criticised the EU's report on Kılıçlar as “embarrassing” and that EU inspection teams must observe real-world operations. “Inspectors should be able to see the natural, daily workflow in a place,” he said. “But [EU inspectors] don’t do this.” He added, “If a student of mine did this type of inspection and wrote this report as a result, I’d fail them. It’s quackery.”

One mistake away from death

Aliağa's shipbreaking yard has been in operation since the 1970s. Conditions since then have improved over the years, largely due to worker and environmental activism forcing the government to enact stricter waste and safety regulations.

Located on the Aegean coast, just north of Izmir, Aliağa’s twenty-two shipbreaking yards sit behind iron walls and gates, with access heavily restricted due to their proximity to oil refineries.

The Black Sea was able to gain access and observe the environment first-hand. It is filled with warning signs and rules, plastered on doors and walls, that highlight ever-present dangers.

A former occupational safety officer at an Aliağa yard said that the abundance of signs is a poor reflection of the safety culture there. “You see all kinds of warning signs and think that safety measures have been taken,” he said. “But when you go and look at the workers, the whole reality comes to light.”

He said it is not uncommon to see workers at great heights without safety harnesses, and cutters carving off pieces of metal with a torch without proper gloves. “Most workers walking around the field do not even have a helmet,” he said.

For an Aliağa shipbreaking company, an EU stamp of approval is a big deal and attracts business. They produce fancy PR videos that show off their certificates and happy workers with body belts, helmets, visors, and masks, kept safe by the protective eyes of supervisors.

One such company is Anadolu Gemi Sokum, an EU-approved yard. We sent the promo to a worker, who shared it with his colleagues.

Their replies were full of cry-laughing emojis. “Liars,” one wrote. “It’s like a joke,” another said. A third chimed in: “Bro, if I didn’t see Anadolu’s logo on the clothes, I would think this is in another country”.

Promotional videos show how the dangerous work of shipbreaking should be undertaken: supervised at all times by safety officers, who ensure the workers comply with regulations. If they witness any safety breaches, these officers have the authority to halt work and report it to the authorities.

In practice, this rarely happens, say workers and experts. Abuses and general non-compliance in Aliağa are well documented. The former officer explained that safety is mostly a box-ticking formality for some yards: “Where do you think the occupational safety officer is who is supposed to supervise the workers?” he said “Sitting in the office, away from workers.”

Ali, employed at the EU-licensed Sök Shipping yard, said there is great pressure to break down a ship and move on to the next. “There is a rush to finish the job,” he said. “The motto at the place I used to work at was ‘no stopping’.” He described how workers were often one mistake away from death or serious injury. “For example, a vehicle will load something right above your head without the operator waiting for you to move. If a piece falls, you are dead.”

In Aliağa, at least 66 workers have died since 1985. This number is known only because of the years-long work of shipbuilders union Limter-iş and later the Istanbul Health and Safety Labour Watch (IHSLW), which compiles a list. They admit the data is incomplete. “There are so many more deaths we were probably never aware of,” said Aslı Odman, an urban sociologist and IHSLW volunteer.

Between 2021 and 2023, six workers at Aliağa have suffered fatal accidents on the job, two of them at EU-licensed Şimşekler. The first was killed in February 2021, barely three months after the EU had approved the yard. It took the second death, however, in June 2022, before the European Commission decided that “underlying organisational factors” were to blame and revoked its licence.

The four other men died at the Metaş shipyard while breaking down a massive Carnival Inspiration cruise ship. Although Metaş is unapproved, its sister yard, Ege Çelik, is owned by the same company and appears on the European List.

“Brother, just quit”

Asbestos-related deaths are harder to determine because the impact doesn’t appear for decades. Turkish law recognises asbestos-related cancers as an ‘occupational disease’, opening the door for compensation. But the legal process is complicated, can take years, and workers or their families face myriad obstacles, Leyla Bilgen, a lawyer for the shipworkers union DGD-Sen, told The Black Sea.

Despite a growing movement among lawyers, academics, and labour unions to hold companies accountable, convincing plaintiffs to file charges or civil suits for asbestos diseases is challenging. Aliağa is a small place and the families fear blowback. “They are all related to each other,” Bilgen said. “Let's say you file a lawsuit at work, you become a complainant, and they won’t employ your child, your cousins, in any of the facilities. People will not pursue a complaint because they are under pressure.”

We could not find a single asbestos case brought against a shipbreaking company in Turkey’s history, nor could any of the lawyers or experts we talked to. The lack of legal precedent has not gone unnoticed by workers, even though many have had family members who got sick. “The idea is accepted that if this is your job, then these are the consequences,” she added.

“Workers now recognise asbestos, for example, because you can see it and you know its dangers,” says Ekin Sakin, policy officer for Brussel-based NGO, the Shipbreaking Platform. “But there is inadequate training and regulations for the disposal of all the other toxic materials.” Shipbreakers are routinely exposed to a cocktail of poisonous materials, like lead, oils, fuel, PCBs, and sulfuric acid, all of which can have serious health and environmental consequences.

Many workers told us that companies often just dump these materials into the sea.

The longer a shipbreaking worker spends in the business, the more the health problems become apparent. One worker, Arif, employed at various Aliağa yards for decades, said that his employer sent him on unpaid leave because tests revealed a high concentration of lead in his bloodstream. “When I recovered and returned to work, they fired me, saying that the lung test showed that I had dust in my lungs,” he said.

A visit to a private hospital confirmed a lung problem and he is now awaiting a diagnosis. “Maybe I have cancer,” he said. “This is what I am left with after 25 years of shipbreaking.”

But how to change a culture that is embedded so deeply? Activists, experts and academics say that both the EU and Turkish governments need to be more rigid in their efforts to strengthen safety at Aliağa. There is resistance in some yards and progress is slow.

Sakin, of the Shipbreaking Platform, which released a detailed report into the state of Bangladeshi shipyards last week, told The Black Sea that to best protect workers, the “EU must enhance its oversight efforts” of shipyards to include “more thorough, unannounced inspections.”

She added that the EU Ship Recycling Regulation should “extend its scope to include the beneficial ownership of ships,” which would help “foster safer dismantling procedures” through accountability and transparency.

Mehmet Ensari spent years helping workers at Aliağa. Recently he has become more fatalistic. “When workers call me with health problems or suspect asbestos, most often I say to them, ‘Brother just quit. Go sell fruit, but don’t do this job. You’re going to die.’”

*The names of workers have been changed to protect them from professional repercussions.

Opening image credit: Vedat Örüç

The satellite video of Aliaga shipyards is used with permission of Iban Ameztoy

Additional reporting by Craig Shaw and Staffan Dahllōf

In partnership with IRPI Media (Carlotta Indiano, Fabio Papetti, Giulio Rubino)

Text editing by Craig Shaw and Katharine Quarmby

Supported by JournalismFund Europe


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