Radio Netherlands Worldwide – The human cost of shipbreaking

8 June 2011 – The sight is usually likened to something out of Dante’s Inferno. Giant behmouths of steel broken down by humans who look all too puny as they clamour over the great hulls of dead cargo ships and oil tankers, cutting them apart one steel plate at a time with blowtorches and metal cutters. These are the shipyards of Chittagong. And it’s not just ships that come here to die.

According to a 2008 paper entitled “The Human Costs of Breaking Ships”, 1000 workers have died in Bangladesh’s shipbreaking yards over the last two decades. But this number doesn’t figure in the uncounted lingering deaths of men and boys from injuries sustained on site, toxic poisoning, inhalation of asbestos and exposure to hazardous materials.

The human fodder of the shipbreaking yards

“Some time ago in a yard where I was working, a team of men were dismantling a part of a roof and suddenly there was a huge explosion.  They’d hit a gas line and all of them died. I went into that place and it was horrible – a neck here, an arm there.  I still can’t forget the sight.”  Mohammed I (his surname has been withheld to protect his identity) 30, has been working at the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong since he was a child.

He opens his shirt to show me the scars of previous injuries, and the marks on his shoulder left by the gigantic steel rods he carries day in day out.  He’s one of the great teams of men who – like yoked animals – stagger in lock step to a chant carrying rods weighing up to a ton each.  For an eight hour day, he earns BDT 160 (Euro1.50).  If he works nine or ten hours then he can earn BDT 200.  Sometimes he’s forced to go for the overtime, but there are days he can’t work at all, broken by days of carrying heavy weights, nauseous and sick from the fumes and poisons that surround him.

A win-win situation

Bangladesh, along with neighbouring India and Pakistan has become the centre of the world’s shipbreaking industry. The few shipbreaking yards left in western countries are an expensive and highly regulated affair, usually dry docking yards with stringent safety regulations. But every year, hundreds of sea vessels need a place to die and South Asian yard owners will pay millions of dollars for dead ships.

Forty-five percent of global shipbreaking happens in Bangladesh; it has no iron ore deposits, and at least a quarter of the country’s steel needs are supplied from dismantled ships. In fact every part of the ship – from its portholes to its gas cylinders to its toilet seats are re-sold in local markets. Ship scraps have become a 700 million dollar industry in the country.  It’s a win-win situation, at least for the buyers and the sellers. For those further down the food chain its another matter.

David and Goliath labour practices

The southern city of Chittagong is the country’s second largest city and has for centuries been a regional sea hub. Today it’s formerly pristine beaches have been transformed by toxic sludge (an estimated five tonnes of it for each ship). Mammoth vessels are taken up into a ten kilometre stretch of beaches during high tide, and then taken apart by hand, by barefoot, ill-clad workers. Around 30,000 labourers work in the Chittagong yards for a couple of dollars a day.

Mohammed D is 27 and he’s worked at the yards for 13 years. His wife is a garment worker and they don’t have any children, so they’re amongst the luckier ones who can afford their 2400 taka monthly rent. I ask him what the worst thing is about the job.  “To see death so often” he replies. “Once there were some men pulling apart a fuel tank from the bottom of the ship and the supervisor sent cutter men with a blowtorch to cut metal on the top part of the ship and so there was an explosion and a fire, and the men on the bottom were trapped inside. When they were brought out, the flesh was coming off their bones – it was terrible to see.”

I´m talking to the two men in our rented vehicle. Several imported sedans and SUV´s – vehicles belonging to the wealthy owners and managers of the yards – pass us and the men ask us to drive further away so they won´t be spotted with us. When I ask them if they´re worried about losing their jobs for talking to me, Mohammed I breaks into a surprising grin and says, “I don’t care – I´m happy you want to hear my story – no one has asked me before.” And indeed, once they started, it was hard to stop the flow.

“Our supervisors are always rushing us, we have to work faster and faster, and then there are more accidents.”

“We’re all casual labourers.  No one has a permanent job.  There are no trade unions. There’s no insurance.”

“Yesterday I had a fever and I couldn’t work, so there was no money. But my family needs my day’s earnings to buy food, so I had to come back to work today.”

“We work even on public holidays but there are no bonuses.”

“I especially hate that we’re searched every day as we go in and out of the yard – they want to make sure we’re not taking anything from the ships with us.”

The activists are seen as the villains

S.M. Nurul Islam is a lawyer with the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, BELA, which has put the environmental and human rights concerns of the industry on the global map.  According to him, it’s not so much a lack of regulation as a lack of enforcement that’s let the yard owners literally get away with murder.

Corruption and a lack of political will combine in the owners’ favour, allowing them to bring in ships that are so toxic they’ve been rejected by everyone else – like the recent acquistion by a Bangladeshi yard owner of the Probo Koala that was refused entry in Amsterdam a few years ago and that is considered to be responsible for several deaths and hundreds of cases of poisoning in the Ivory Coast.

Islam says that when BELA takes owners to court for mistreating its workers or the environment, in short when “we try to work in the interests of our country, the government treats us like we’re the villains on the payroll of foreign interests.”

Filthy and harmful as this industry is in Bangladesh, I was hard pressed to find people who wanted it banished from the country. Even the two Mohammeds who have been virtually bonded slaves to it all their lives, are grateful for the work it’s provided them. But workers and activists agree that safety and environmental regulations, as well as good labour practices, need to be better enforced than they have been up till now – which has done much to enrich a handful at the top but only with a terrible price in human misery.

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