Deutsche Welle – Shipbreaker: “We shouted for help but nobody heard us.”

(Written by Gönna Ketels & Monika Griebeler)

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30 December 2014 - Accidents are common in the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong. And very often, those who get hurt don’t receive the necessary medical treatment – like Ibrahim. Life Links reporter Gönna went to see him.

“Safety First” – that’s what it says on huge signs at some of the entrances to the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong. But inside many workers are dismantling the ships without proper safety gear – no helmets, no boots, no gloves. Safety? Not so much.

“Often, workers are hit by falling steel parts or they’re crushed underneath,” says Patrizia Heidegger from Brussels-based NGO Shipbreaking Platform. “We also see workers falling from great heights from the top of the ship.” There are also toxic gases that can suffocate workers or cause explosions – not to mention all the hazardous materials like asbestos or heavy metals.

But toxic gases were not what hurt Ibrahim – it was the large piece of iron he got caught under. And that was three months ago.

Since then he’s been stuck in bed. His family is too poor to pay for medical treatment and his employer is not offering any help at all. Ibrahim survived the accident, but the 15-year-old might be disabled for the rest of his life.

Stricter laws not enforced

Every day, around 20,000 workers risk their lives in the shipbreaking yards. Thirteen workers so far this year have died in the shipyards in 2014, according to the Shipbreaking Platform. But the actual death toll is estimated to be much higher as most workers are not officially registered, incidents are rarely reported and the workers are unlikely to file claims.

Over the past 20 years, according to Bangladeshi media, there were more than 400 deaths and 6,000 injuries. On average, one worker dies a week and every day someone is injured. Those who survive with scars, dubbed “Chittagong tattoos”, or missing fingers are still the lucky ones.

Human rights organizations have been criticizing the yard owners for years. And there has been some progress – theoretically: In 2009, the High Court of Bangladesh imposed stricter regulations on shipyards, outlawing shipbreaking on beaches. According to the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), however, the government does not enforce these laws and also continues to ignore international laws on transnational movement of hazardous waste.

“In Bangladesh, the owners don’t have to follow environmental protection law, waste law, labor law,” Heidegger says. “Everything is cheap.” Even a human life.