On 3 July 2014, the young labourer Taslim and his colleagues were working the nightshift in Legend Holdings shipbreaking yard in Sitakunda, close to Bangladesh’s major port city Chittagong. It is 4 o’clock in the morning and the men are cutting and carrying large steel plates from one of the ships. A foreman tells them to move a heavy plate. Taslim and the other workers ask their superior for a magnetic crane to lift the huge piece of scrap. Taslim, now 25 years old, has been working in the several different shipbreaking yards for seven years and has gained experience. The foreman refuses to interrupt the work in order to deploy lifting machinery. He asks the men to continue.
“Just do it”, he says.
The heavy steel plate slips and falls down – onto Taslim and one of his colleagues. Both men are severely injured. Taslim has managed to move to the side and protect his head, but the plate has fallen on his leg. His lower leg is fractured and bleeding heavily. There is no ambulance and no emergency equipment in the yard. In violent pain, Taslim and his colleague have no choice but to lie waiting in the yard for three hours. Nobody takes care of them. After dawn, around 7 o’clock, fellow workers manage to move them to the street and organise for a vehicle to take them to the Medical College hospital in Chittagong. It is already after 9 o’clock when the severely injured men arrive in the emergency room. Seven hours after the accident, at 11, a doctor finally comes to see them. Nobody has taken care of their bleeding wounds, offered first aid or given them pain killers so far.
The x-ray taken later that day shows that the bones in Taslim’s lower leg are smashed to pieces. His foot is twisted from the leg. He receives some initial treatment, however, he has no money to pay for the necessary operation. His family cannot afford it and the yard owner does not respond to the family’s plea for medical support. For one long month nothing happens. Taslim stays in the hospital without further treatment. The flesh wounds are healing, but his bones are still smashed. The family borrows money from all around – altogether 40.000 Bangladeshi Taka (BDT) – around 400 EUR – to afford at least some treatment. After local NGOs have informed the Labour Department and the Factory Inspection about the accident, the yard owner contributes 16.000 BDT (around 160 EUR). Taslim’s leg is now held together by three metal screws. A new x-ray shows a splintered fracture of both the fibula and the tibia.
The two parts of the fibula are completely dislocated. He needs an operation in order to fix the bones and to be able to walk again properly. The doctors have already proposed three different dates for the operation, but as the yard owner is unwilling to pay for treatment and has not insured his workers against accidents, time has passed without the operation taking place.
The doctors sent Taslim home. He comes from a neighbouring village behind the shipbreaking yards. Today, the young lean man is lying on a bed in a tiny room within the family’s hut. His leg became infected around one of the screws. He is in severe pain and can hardly move his leg. After not being able to move for nearly three months, he has become very weak. There is nothing to do – the September sun is scorching hot, it is dark inside the hut, and the old TV is broken. His only joy is his 18-month-old daughter.
“I do not expect them to pay for my operation”, he says with a weary voice. Too much time has passed already, and
not even the Eid festival, the end of the Ramadan and the time for compassion, has convinced the yard owner to help his employee.
Seven years have already passed since the Bangladesh Shipbreakers’ Association (BSBA) built a hospital in the area. The shipbreaking industry had been making headlines because of the many accidents and deaths that took place in the yards. The impressive six-floor building is adorned with blue glass windows and boasts a marble desk in the entrance hall. When asked about health care facilities, the yard owners are not tired to mention their hospital in international conferences and to journalists. However, all the rooms are empty – there is no patient being treated there. Apparently, the industry raised the funds to raise the building, but then never agreed on how to run the hospital.
“There is not a single doctor here and the hospital does not treat a single person”, summarizes Shahin, the
local coordinator of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform.
Taslim’s mother is sitting on a pile of rice bags in the hut. She is crying. “What are we supposed to do? Our elder son
earned most of the family’s income – now who will sustain us?”.
Taslim’s father and younger brother are day labourers, they work in the fields of land-owning neighbours. In order to improve his family’s income, Taslim decided to work as an industrial worker. When he first joined the shipbreaking yards, he says he was aware of the risks of accidents. He has regularly witnessed accidents that resulted in severe injuries and the death of workers.
“I did it for my family. We do not want my younger brother to work in shipbreaking”, he says.
Taslim got a job as a “cutter” – one of the better paid jobs in the yards, but also one of the riskiest ones. Workers are regularly crushed to death by heavy steel plates. An average monthly salary of only 8000 or 9000 Taka (about 80 or 90 EUR) made him put his life in danger. Now he has become a burden for the family. Taslim’s wife steps out of the shade of the small room next door.
“We do not own this hut nor the land it is built on. We rent it from our neighbours. Now that my husband cannot work anymore, they want to get rid of us”.
Their landlord has already gone to the court to ask for their eviction. The accident has not only ruined Taslim’s health, but
the whole family’s livelihood.
While the Platform and its members raised some funds to help Taslim, father of a baby girl, the Platform’s local coordinator in Chittagong discussed Taslim’s case and the despairing situation of other injured workers with the Labour Department and the Factory Inspection Department. The yard owners are legally obliged under Bangladesh labour law to cover the costs for medical treatment. At the same time, Platform member organization Bangladesh Environmental Lawyer’s Association (BELA) sent a letter to the Ministry of Industry, the focal ministry for the shipbreaking industry, to demand better treatment for the injured workers and for the yard management to be held financially responsible.
The Government consequently contacted two yards, Kabir Steel and Legend Holding, on behalf of two injured workers, Jashim Uddin and Taslim, reminding the yard managements of their legal duties.
As a reaction to the Government’s letter, the manager of Legend Holdings, were Taslim was injured, contacted the family. He complained that the family had talked to journalists and NGOs and threatened Taslim that the yard would file a case against him – a common and effective measure to silence workers that are considered bothersome. Only after further intervention of the Platform’s local member organisations, have the yard managers finally agreed to bear the costs of the operations. More than six months after his severe accident, Taslim was finally operated in early January 2015.