Retired Greek ships destined to end their lives in Turkey, SE Asia

Vassilis was in a foul mood as he waved to us in a peremptory manner before climbing aboard his ship, anchored at Perama, southwest of Piraeus.

“What do you want me to say? It’s heartbreaking. The state has abandoned us. Clever and resourceful men built something with a lot of hard work and love, and those who govern us have torn it apart, just as Greek ships are torn apart on the coasts of Turkey and Asian countries every year.”

The 72-year-old shipowner recently signed a deal with a Turkish company to dispose of one of his vessels and take it to pieces for scrap.

“Even when a ship stays moored because there is no work for it to do, the bills keep coming in,” said Vassilis, who declined to give his last name. “The banks won’t give you any help, so in order to maintain some degree of dignity you have to slaughter your ships. In contrast to the Greek bureaucratic procedures, the Turkish businessman comes here, checks that all the documents are in order, pays and leaves with the ship.”

Vassilis believes that his ship still has a few years of work left in her, but selling it for scrap is his only option.

Dozens of Greek owners of ships both large and small are faced with the same conundrum as Vassilis, and more often than not, end up making the same choice he did. The bigger ships normally end up at scrap yards in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China and other Asian countries. Medium-sized and smaller vessels are usually sent to Turkey. The very small ones, however, are either left to rot or sold for scrap to one of a handful of Greek companies that have survived in the field, even though most of them are swamped in debt and underemployed.

“We have broken up more than 3,000 ships and built 856. Our father started this business in 1933 and it has been working nonstop since,” Constantinos Savvas told Kathimerini.

Constantinos wears a suit and his brother, Dimitris, is in workman’s gear, delineating their respective roles. Theirs is one of the few companies left in Greece that dismantle ships.

The drop in business is also party due to European Union regulations meant to reduce the number of ship scrap yards in order to curb their environmental impact. The regulations are very strict, which means that an increasing number of ships from Europe end up in Asia, where environmental and safety regulations tend to be a lot more lenient, normally to the detriment of the workers at the shipbreaking yards.

According to the estimates of the nongovernmental organization Shipbreaking Platform, more than 80 percent of the world’s ships end up in developing countries where they are turned into scrap without any kind of environmental police governing the process. In 2012 the number of ships sent to India, Bangladesh and Pakistan rose to 365 from 210 the previous year.

“In 2012, Greek shipowners ranked first of the top 10 after sending over 167 vessels to the coasts of Southeast Asia, representing half of all the ships sold by European shipowners for scrap,” says a report by the organization, which is ringing the alarm bells over the damage such practices cause to the environment.

The report also notes that Turkey has become increasingly aware of the side effects of shipbreaking and is beginning to introduce tougher regulations.

Second place goes to Germany with 48 ships, followed by the United Kingdom (30), Norway (23) and Cyprus (13).

“Shipbreaking yards like Aliaga in Turkey are small worlds in their own right where huge amounts of money are at play and on which many smaller economic sectors depend,” explains a Greek coast guard official who declined to be named. “Just to get an idea, even the small boats used to ferry migrants trying to enter Greece illegally have been taken off bigger ships.”