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A graveyard for ships and men

Bangladeshi shipbreakers thrive at the cost of workers and the environment

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A graveyard for ships and men

Workers stand near an old ship ready to be dismantled at a shipbreaking yard in Sitakunda near Chittagong port city in 2014. They are considered to have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.(Photo: Rock Ronald Rozario/UCA News)

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Alim Hossain is a sanitation worker who lives in southeastern Bangladesh’s port city of Chittagong with his wife and three sons.

He and his wife, a low-paid domestic helper, struggle to maintain the five-member family with about US$3 per day. Despite the difficulties, Hossain, 40, a Muslim, is happy to be alive today after narrowly escaping death six years ago.

Hossain was a cutter man at a shipbreaking yard in Sitakunda, north of Chittagong, for seven years before he quit in 2014. His daily income was US$5-7 per day depending on overtime.

He was one of an estimated 30,000 workers employed by 50-65 shipbreaking companies that import old ships from all over the world to dismantle and recycle for steel.

Gangs of workers carry out perhaps the world’s most dangerous and dirtiest job — dissecting hulking ships mostly with their bare hands, blow torches, sledgehammers and almost no protective gear.

Hossain became a victim of one of the regular accidents in shipyards. “I fell from a ship as tall as a three-story building and metal chunks fell on me. My hands, legs and internal organs were damaged. I thought I was dead but I survived,” he recalled.

Following the accident in late 2013, he needed medical treatment for nearly one year and spent all his savings. His company compensated him with 200,000 taka (US$2,353), which was not even enough to cover his medical costs.

“I quit the industry. I can survive with less income but I can no longer take life-threatening risks,” he said.

Hossain might consider himself relatively lucky. Brothers Niranjan Das, 48, and Sumon Das, 45, died and two other workers were badly injured when they were exposed to toxic gas in the engine room of a scrapped ship at a shipbreaking yard on March 24.

Accidents and deaths are common in the shipbreaking industry, which the International Labor Organization (ILO) considers as a major cause of occupational and environmental hazards around the world.

Big business but poorly regulated

After an average life span of 25-30 years, ships become burdens for owners as insurers refuse to take their liabilities.

In the West, any old ship must be dismantled in green-certified shipbreaking yards with advanced technology and expensive processes.

In 2014, the European Union introduced legislation that requires its ships to be dismantled in proper disposal facilities. However, the requirement can be evaded if the ship is reflagged after selling, activists say.

In most cases. old ships are sold to international dealers who resell the vessels to shipbreaking companies in countries with relatively lax regulations.

Most aged ships, often containing toxic materials such as asbestos and inflammable oil and gases, end up on the shores of Bangladesh, India, China and Pakistan. These countries together account for 90 percent of all ships dissected globally each year, according to Brussels-based NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a safe shipbreaking advocacy organization.

In 2019, Bangladesh retained the top spot globally with 234 ships dismantled, accounting for 42 percent of all ships broken around the world, the organization reported.

The downside was that 24 workers died and at least 34 were seriously injured in the yards that year, it noted.

Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), a Chittagong-based advocacy group, estimates the number of fatalities and casualties are much higher as some accidents are not reported.

Shipbreaking is considered a dangerous and dirty job because of the vastness and structural complexities of ships, toxic materials and inadequate safety measures that pose grave risks to human health and the environment, according to the ILO.

Commercial shipbreaking started in Bangladesh in 1974, largely because the country had no iron ore mines to meet massive domestic demand for steel and iron for rapid urbanization and industrialization. It was recognized as an organized industry only in 2006.

Each ton of a broken ship can fetch a profit of US$25 for owners, while workers get an average of US$3 per day for carrying out this extremely dangerous job.

Almost everything on a ship, including nuts, bolts, lightbulbs, lifeboats and tubs, is sold in local markets.

The industry’s annual turnover is about US$2 billion, analysts say, yet most shipyards have not implemented a minimum monthly wage of 16,000 taka (US$189).

Little changes

From the beginning, shipbreaking in Bangladesh developed with no monitoring or regulations, so companies mostly flouted worker safety and environmental rules, campaigners say.

“The Ship Recycling Act and Labor Law are supposed to ensure checks and balances in the industry, but often the laws are not enforced due to the immense political and financial muscle of owners. In recent times, some yards have been offering some fringe facilities for workers, but little has changed in terms of basic workplace and environmental safety,” YPSA coordinator Muhammad Ali told UCA News.

Only one company, PHP Group, which owns Bangladesh’s second-largest shipyard, has obtained a “green certificate” but some others have been trying to follow the feat, he noted.

Starting in 2000, some environmental groups battled against unregulated shipbreaking in the courts, which almost brought the industry to a standstill.

The restrictions were fully lifted by the High Court in 2010 with several conditions including safety inspections before a ship enters Bangladesh waters and annual safety inspections of yards.

The government is sincere about regulating this vital industry, said Moazzem Hossain, Chittagong regional director of the state-run Department of Environment.

“There is no way a ship can enter a yard without our inspection and clearance certificate or a shipyard can operate without yearly renewal of licenses. If this rule is violated, large fines are imposed,” Hossain told UCA News.

No study has been carried out on the environmental impact of shipbreaking, he admitted.

“Only a few companies have the capacity to maintain standard safety measures like in the West, but we want all of them to be compliant one day,” Hossain added.

The industry has been following worker safety rules and environmental guidelines, said Salah Uddin, a member of Bangladesh Shipbreakers and Recyclers Association.

“Our members follow standard practice for environment and worker safety. There are two levels of mandatory inspections and clearance before shipbreaking is carried out. The nature of shipbreaking is dangerous by default, so not much can be done about sporadic accidents,” Uddin told UCA News.

A forbidden kingdom

Once a pristine sandy beach washed by the Karnaphuli River that connects with the Bay of Bengal, a strip of about 25 kilometers stretching from Sitakunda to Chittagong city is the shipbreaking hub of Bangladesh, often called the world’s largest ship graveyard.

The area used to be a fish haven but is now a dead zone with blackish water due to constant spills of hazardous chemicals from old, scrapped ships.

The area has 55-60 shipbreaking yards, each secured with barbed wire fences and guard posts, making it an effective no-go zone for outsiders.

Decades of efforts from rights groups, charities and labor unions to have access to shipbreaking yards have met with little to no success.

Bangladesh Shipbreaking Workers Trade Union Forum has limited bargaining and advocacy capacity in the yards.

“For many years we have attempted to have access to shipbreaking yards to assist workers’ rights and the environment, but we failed every time due to resistance from owners who wield considerable political and financial clout,” James Gomes, regional director of Catholic charity, Caritas Chittagong, told UCA News.

Most workers in the industry are outsiders from poor areas who have no choice, he noted.

“There is a connection between poverty and workers taking life-threatening risks in shipyards. They know the job is dangerous but at least they are employed and able to feed families. Whether risky or safe, shipbreaking will continue as long as poor workers are available,” Gomes said.

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