09/28/2023, 19.30
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In Bangladesh, life expectancy for shipbreakers is 20 years less than average

A Human Rights Watch report highlights the conditions young workers face scrapping ships, one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Scrapping yards employ children as young as 13, violating international standards, polluting the sea, and covering beaches with toxic waste.

Dhaka (AsiaNews) – European shipping companies are sending ships to Bangladesh for scrapping, fully aware that workers and the environment are harmed, poorly protected by the law, this according to "Trading lives for profit", a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

According to the human rights advocacy group, shipping companies are circumventing international regulations that ban exporting ships to shipyards that lack proper safety standards.

The study – which is based on interviews (but not only) with dozens of shipbreakers, doctors, relatives and experts in regulations on scrapping and environmental protection – shows that in most cases, toxic waste is dumped directly on the beach or the surrounding areas, while workers are denied decent wages, rest, and compensation in case of accidents,

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) views shipbreaking as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and the workers’ stories seem to bear this out.

Mohammed Biplob, 35, was one of these workers. He was employed by Arefin Enterprise, which operates a shipyard in Chattogram.

In the summer 2021, he was torching a pipe in the engine room, when it suddenly exploded and threw him against a wall, burning his face and breaking his back.

In order to pay for medical treatment, his family had to sell all the land they had. Biplob now runs a tea stall to earn something to support his family.

Other workers say they use socks for gloves to avoid burning their hands or wrap their shirts around their mouths to avoid inhaling toxic fumes, or carry heavy pieces of steel barefoot.

Sohrab, 27, is another. “I only make 200 taka per day so I cannot afford gumboots that cost 800 taka. I work barefoot. This is why workers often get injured with fire or wire or nails stabbing into our feet,” he said. The “company provides nothing for our safety. If I ask for safety equipment, the company owners say, ‘if you have a problem then leave’.”

In many cases, emergency medical services are not available, so workers have to take their injured colleagues from the beach to the road to find a private vehicle and go to the hospital.

In 2017, during a night shift, Rakib, 20, was cutting a heavy piece of iron that fell on him and chopped off his left leg, while an iron rod pierced his stomach.

He was pinned to the ground for 45 minutes before other workers could free him. In the middle of the night, there were no cars or rickshaws available, so his colleagues carried him on their shoulders to a hospital.

Because the owners of the yard were willing to pay only for life-saving care, he was discharged after 17 days and later developed gangrene in his leg.

Rakib said the shipyard owners refused to pay any compensation. I'm only 20 years old and my life is totally ruined by this accident,” he lamented.

In Bangladesh, the life expectancy of men working in the shipbreaking industry is 20 years below average.

A 2019 survey found that children make up 13 per cent of the workforce, a figure that rises to 20 per cent during night shifts (which is illegal). Most workers interviewed said they started working at the age of 13.

Bangladesh is one of the main destinations for shipbreaking. Since 2020, some 20,000 workers have dismantled more than 520 ships, more tonnage than any other country.

Here shipyards use a method called "beaching", whereby ships sail full steam into the beach during high tide to be dismantled directly on the sand rather than on a pier or platform.

The worksite itself is full of hazards and toxic waste is dumped directly into the sand and sea. Toxic materials from the vessels, including asbestos, is dumped on the ground and in the sea, handled without protective equipment and in some cases sold in the second-hand market, impacting the health in surrounding communities.

EU shipping companies are required to dispose of EU-flagged ships in a shipyard approved by the European Union, but to circumvent the law many buy "flag of convenience" in other countries.

“Taking ships apart on tidal mudflats exposes workers to unacceptable risks,” said Ingvild Jenssen, executive director and founder of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform.

This comes “with fatal consequences and causes irreparable damage to sensitive coastal ecosystems”. 

Instead, “The cost of sustainable ship recycling must be borne by the shipping sector, not people and the environment in Bangladesh.”

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