Kader, 16 years old, is lean and small. He seems to be much younger. Up until last year, Kader went to school and managed to finish class 8. But when his father was sent to jail by a powerful shipbreaker – based on false allegations – his family faced a grim situation. Now the boy works in the shipbreaking yards himself, 12 hours a day, either from eight in the morning to eight in the evening, or the nightshift from after dusk till dawn.
He and his young fellow workers are “cutter helpers”: they assist the older workers who dismantle the ships with
blowtorches. They carry gas cylinders and other equipment for the cutters. “I am afraid to be struck dead by a
falling steel plate”, Kader says. “Often, the other workers do not tell us before they cut a large piece and it just falls down without warning”.
Kader knows about the risk of fires that can burn and kill workers and about toxic gas explosions which suffocate the workers, sometimes to death. In the last few years, NGOs have recorded several fatal accidents at S. Trading shipbreaking yard, the yard where Kader works. In May this year, a shipbreaking worker called Saidur Rahman, 30 years old, stood next to a gas cylinder when it exploded. Saidur suffered from severe gas poisoning. There was no doctor in the shipbreaking yard and no ambulance to quickly take him to an emergency room. Fellow workers carried him to a car, but he died on the way to the hospital in Chittagong.
When he joined S. Trading shipbreaking yard, Kader did not receive any training on health and safety issues. Kader and his fellow workers have however learnt about the risks when working. As safety equipment is scarce, the boys have to bring their own boots when they go to the yard. They wear simple jeans and shirts. If they happen to find old or even torn gloves on the yard, they put them on to protect their hands. “When we get a bad cut, we receive 100 Taka (around 1 EUR) from the yard owner”, Kader explains. For smaller wounds, they receive bandages that they need to apply themselves, and go straight back to work.
Kader and the other boys do not have any employment relationship with the yard owner. They are brought to the yard by “contractors” and foremen, who take the responsibility to organize the workforce throughout the dismantling of a ship. As soon as a ship is completely dismantled, Kader has to work for another yard, any yard, depending on the work available. It does not make a difference that yard owners have put up big sign boards at the entrance of their yards, saying “Safety first” and “No child labour” as long as nobody ensures that workers coming into the yard are qualified and old enough to work in a hazardous industry. For a 12 hour shift, the boys earn 280 Taka (around 2,80 EUR). That is more than what some of the adult workers receive. The “cutters” and “cutter helpers” get relatively higher wages as their jobs are at the core of the shipbreaking business, but are also riskier than other activities. The relatively high payment lures the boys into this dangerous job.
“Other people in this area work in shipbreaking. They just took me with them”, Kader explains when asked about his introduction to the industry.
The owner of S. Trading shipbreaking yard, Alhaj Mohammad Shafi, owns four shipbreaking yards in total in Sitakunda. They are part of the Seema Group of Industries, which also includes Seema Automatic Re-Rolling Mills Ltd (SARM) in Sitakunda, where the scrap steel is processed in cold re-rolling mills and turned into steel bars. The website of the group states: “SARM is dedicated to safely producing the highest quality steel products for our customers (…). SARM is committed to being a responsible corporate citizen. It is our intention to operate ethically with all constituents, maintaining fair and honest relationships and to operate within both the letter and the spirit of the law (…).” The pictures on the group’s website only display the steel mill, a large factory. Companies like SARM feed the construction and real-estate sector’s need for steel bars.
Kader lives in a small settlement of simple huts in the vicinity of the shipbreaking area in Sitakunda, to the north of the port city of Chittagong. He shares one room with his mother Halima and his younger brother. His older brother works in a shop close by and does not stay at home. The younger brother is seven years old, but seems merely four or five. Halima is a very joyful person and smiles a lot. But when she speaks about her son Kader, she immediately starts to cry.
“What can I do? I have to send him off to work since my husband is in prison”.
Kader’s father Kamrul was also a shipbreaking worker. According to his fellow workers, an influential shipbreaking businessman decided to scrap a ship which had been laying on the beach for a long time, close to the shipbreaking yard. He engaged a foreman. The latter asked Kamrul to work on the abandoned ship. One day, the Police arrived to recover the ship as
they were informed that the ship was being demolished by a group of local bandits. The police only found Kamrul on the spot. He was charged with carrying illegal arms and looting. A local court sentenced him to 10 years in jail. The shipbreaking businessman who had asked Kamrul to work on the ship remained silent although he knew his worker was innocent – he and his allies needed a scapegoat, Kader’s father. Kamrul has already served two years in prison. His family is left behind with hardly any income.
“I have a heart problem”, Halima explains putting her hand to her chest, “and cannot do heavy labour. So we sent Kader to work in the yards.”
Bangladesh’s domestic law prohibits the employment of children younger than 14 as well as of adolescent workers younger than 18 in shipbreaking yards. The domestic regulations reflect international standards that aim at abolishing the worst forms of child labour. According to the Labour Act 2006, adolescents cannot work in hazardous industries at all – and shipbreaking has been classified as such. Even if they were allowed to work there, every adolescent worker would need a medical certificate of fitness, to be delivered by a medical practitioner. The adolescent workers in the shipbreaking yards are not even registered as workers and no doctor has ever looked at Kader. Moreover, no adolescent is allowed to work in an environment where machinery or parts of machines are in motion. Adolescents cannot work with any machine at all unless they have sufficient training and are under adequate supervision, which is not the case in shipbreaking yards. Finally, adolescents may work a maximum of 30 hours a week and are not allowed to work any nightshift. All these provisions of the Labour Act are bluntly violated by the shipbreaking yards.