“My second son Arif started working in a shipbreaking yard where he risked his life every day to sustain the lives of his family. Today, we are alive, but my dearest son Arif is no longer with us,” Firoza Begum, says with tears in her eyes. She adds, “I had three sons and two daughters. My elder son died in a road accident and then my second son Arif, the main earner in the family, returned to Bangladesh from the Middle East to get married. He was attracted to work in the shipbreaking yard through a relative who is connected with the local scrap businesses. Arif had never worked in a shipbreaking yard before.”
Arif was 27 years old when he died with three of his fellow workers on 4 April 2014 while working inside a tank of the ship “Kapitan Lyashenko” (IMO 8617976) beached for demolition in Bangladesh. The accident occurred when a cylinder full of carbon dioxide burst inside a storage tank of the ship dismantled at Arefin Enterprise in Sitakund, Chittagong. Four men, including Arif, were working inside the tank. After the explosion, the workers tried to climb up from the bottom of the tank. Arif’s younger brother, Munir, worked at the yard as well and was on the deck of the same ship. He was also injured by the toxic gas released from the cylinder.
The workers caught in the tank used their mobile phones to call their families and the yard authorities for help. They knew that they were going to die from inhaling the toxic gas. Nobody from the yard came to their rescue. There were other workers on the yards, but they could not help their colleagues. Jonny, a fellow worker who survived the accident, later said that the workers had screamed for oxygen masks and had appealed to fellow workers to help them leave the tank. However, nobody could go in and save them as gas mask were not available. A survivor later reported that he could have saved at least two of the workers if the yard authorities had provided him with an oxygen mask. Some of the relatives rushed to the yard, but they found that all of the yard entrances had been locked by the yard authorities. Also Arif’s mother rushed to the yard, but there was no information about the accident and the victims. She later found her dead son at the hospital.
The inspector of the Department of Factory Inspection for Safety of Shops and Establishment confirmed that “a cylinder full of carbon dioxide suddenly blasted in a lower chamber of an old ship at the shipbreaking yard of Arefin Enterprise at Kadam Rasul. The cause of death of the four men who died in the attack was determined to be toxic gas”. He could not confirm the reason behind the blast. According to Ramjan Mia, president of the Association of Winch Machine Operators, “it often happens that cylinders with carbon dioxide explode if they are not handled in an appropriate manner, in particular by unskilled workers.” According to some senior workers, the contractors who bring in the labour force into yards often force unskilled workers to go down and clean oil or flammable substances from the bottom of the tank or some lower chambers of the ships. This is a particularly dangerous job.
The local police station explained that they were informed about the accident by the yard authorities and they recovered the dead bodies from a lower chamber of the ship where a huge amount of toxic gas had spread. As a direct witness, Muhammed Ali Shahin, the Bangladesh Coordinator of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, was informed that the bodies were sent to a private clinic owned by businessmen involved in the shipbreaking industry. The owner of Arefin Enterprise gave 10.000 Taka (approximately 120 EUR) to the families of the killed workers for their funerals. As a member of the executive committee of the Bangladesh Ship Breakers’ Association (BSBA), the owner had been under serious pressure from the local media -who reported about the accident-, NGOs, and family members. After the local coordinator of the Platform informed journalists of the incident, it was widely published in national and international media. In May, civil society members from different organisation formed a human chain in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka in protest and demanded that existing laws for the shipbreaking industry be enforced and more efforts be made to put an end to such accidents.
In this case, the external pressure on the yard owner was successful and a few days after the funerals, the families of the dead workers were called for an arbitration meeting about the compensation for the death of their loved ones. The police, yard authorities and a few trade union leaders were present. It was decided to give 500.000 Taka (approx. 5960 EUR) to each family. The legal minimum is 100.000 Taka. However, nobody was held responsible beyond a compensation payment, although the yard management had been negligent in employing unskilled and unprotected workers in confined spaces and had not reacted adequately to save their lives.
In Arif’s case, the relative who first brought him to the yard received the money and refused to pay the full amount to his parents. His family was also the victim of local criminals who extorted money from them and threatened to chase them from their home in Chittagong. This shows the vulnerability of poor families who often face even more trouble once they lose the bread-earner of the family. Arif’s parents were later able to buy a tiny piece of land and set up a simple dwelling; however, after loosing Arif, they had to generate income. Munir is still not healthy enough after the intoxication to work hard, so he helps out in a tea stall. Arif’s young wife gave birth to a baby boy after his death. She is not staying with her in-laws but returned to her family home. Arif’s mother went to see her grandson. She wonders what they will tell him when he asks them why they sent his father to work a job where he was risking his life every day.
Arif’s sad fate illustrates the risks shipbreaking workers face in Bangladesh every day. The unskilled workers are not properly trained and protected against severe health threats. The lack of proper infrastructure and procedures leads to regular fatal accidents, which could be avoided otherwise. The yard management does obviously not implement any emergency plan and was unable to save the workers’ lives. The compensation payment does save the victims’ families from falling into extreme poverty after losing their main source of income. Last but not least, the industry enjoys impunity as nobody is ever held legally responsible for negligent behaviour leading to the death of their employees.