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Report bares dangers of Bangladesh's shipbreaking yards

International ship owners including the Europeans send old, toxic ships to Bangladesh to avoid strict regulations at home
Workers dismantling a ship without adequate protective equipment in Chattogram, Bangladesh.

Workers dismantling a ship without adequate protective equipment in Chattogram, Bangladesh. (Photo: Anukta via Human Rights Watch)

Published: September 29, 2023 08:42 AM GMT
Updated: September 29, 2023 09:19 AM GMT

Workers in Bangladesh’s shipbreaking yards lose 20 years of life expectancy due to dangerous working conditions while local communities and the environment suffer from pollution, reveals a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Released on Sept. 28, the report “Trading Lives for Profit” highlights the existential risks shipbreaking yards pose to workers, local communities, and the environment.

It also reveals how rich international ship owners get rid of their end-of-life vessels and send them to Bangladesh, to be dismantled at one of the world’s largest shipbreaking yards criticized by rights groups for dangerous and polluting practices.

The national and international laws fail to ensure that these ill-fated workers get a legitimate minimum wage, let alone compensation when they meet tragic accidents while carrying out extremely laborious and risky work, often without any protection, the report stated.

“The report is not an exaggeration,” said Abdul Hannan, 45, a cutter at a shipbreaking yard in Foujdarhat of Chattogram, a port city in southeast Bangladesh close to the shipbreaking hub.

“While trying hard to avoid onsite accidents, shipbreaking workers inhale asbestos, many toxic metals, and other substances to die from sooner or later illnesses such as cancer,” he said.

Over a third of the shipbreaking workers surveyed in 2017 by the Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health, and Environment Foundation were found to have suffered preventable health complications from asbestos exposure for 10 years.

According to the Bangladesh Ship Breakers and Recyclers Association (BSBRA), the apex industry body, there are 160 shipbreaking and recycling yards in Chattogram. Some 65 are active and around 40 remain operational around the year.

The association’s president Abu Taher said the HRW report and claims of workers were not true.

“Accidents occur everywhere, and people can die in accidents,” he said.

The industry reportedly employs about 30,000 workers. A 2019 survey found that 13 percent of the workforce are children.

Hannan, a shipbreaking worker since 1995, said he has seen many of his colleagues go down with illnesses and accidents and even die.

Asbestos, identified by the US Department of Health and Human Services as a human carcinogen, is used as insulation in ships.

Ships are also a source of heavy metals like cadmium, lead, chromium, Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), and mercury.

Oils, fuel, harmful bacteria, and toxic sludge are also found in bilge water, sewage, and ballast water in ships.

The HRW report said a total of 520 ships have been dismantled in Bangladeshi yards since 2020, totaling the highest tonnage of any other country.

The industry is worth US$2 billion a year and provides more than half of the annual steel demands in a country that has no iron ore mines.

Old ships reportedly contain naturally radioactive substances as they are full of flammables such as diesel, oil, gas, oxygen tanks, and polymers, major causes of workplace accidents in the yards such as fire and explosion.

“Workers and surrounding communities are frequently exposed to toxic materials in the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they grow and eat, impacting health and livelihood,” said the HRW report.

“Workers described using their own socks as gloves to avoid burning their hands as they cut through molten steel, wrapping their shirts around their mouths to avoid inhaling toxic fumes, and carrying chunks of steel while barefoot,” the report added.

There are “asbestos villages” near the yards where stoves and other furniture are made from scrap asbestos, it further added.

Workers say they are often employed informally without any paperwork, never get the government's fixed minimum wage, no overtime payments, and compensation for losing body parts in accidents.

In 2018, the government fixed a minimum monthly wage of 16,000 taka (US$146) for entry-level shipbreakers.

“We work at least 10 hours per day and every day of a month,” said Jasim Uddin, 50, a worker based in Sitakunda of Chattogram.

He gets 22,000 taka ($199) a month after working 32 years in shipbreaking yards.

In the past decades, 21 species of fish and watery animals have gone extinct and 11 other species are now endangered due to pollution from the industry, according to the Marine Institute of Chattogram University.

A Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research study in 2020 found dangerous contamination of heavy metals in the soil around shipbreaking areas and food crops grown nearby.

The industry is also accused of destroying coastal mangrove forests, one of Bangladesh’s most important lines of defense against natural disasters like cyclones.

Many of the ships scrapped in Bangladesh come from European Companies who have ways to circumvent regulations and avoid culpability, said the report.

"Ship recycling is a service to the international shipping companies. So, international shipping companies, especially the EU shipping companies should be more responsible to extend their cooperation for the development of the industry," said Muhammed Ali Shahin, coordinator of Chattogram-based watchdog, Young Power in Social Action (YPSA).

The group recorded deaths of 65 shipbreaking workers since 2019.

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