Insight: Bangladesh’s Ship-Breaking Industry

Eshi Vaz provides an insight into the dangers inherent in Bangladesh’s Ship-Breaking Industry.

Where ships go to die, many struggle for survival

We know we come to work with coffins attached to our backs”

Chittagong, one of Bangladesh’s largest port cities has long been the burial ground of the world’s old and broken ships, serving an industry that has exploited the lives of the poorest who often have no other alternative than to subject themselves to a life of dangerous labour.

The ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh is driven by international demand and has subsequently become a significant source of the country’s revenue: the breaking down of ships generates 60% of all steel used and sold in the country where each part of a ship amounts to almost £100,000, increasing the power of ship-breaking industry firms over policies. Given that an estimated 50,000 people are directly employed within the ship-breaking business, it further acts as a lucrative opportunity for poor families with no education or training to earn a marginal subsistence living, preventing a life of absolute poverty. As such, despite more than 2000 workers having died in the last 30 years at ship-breaking yards as a result of lacking protective measures, the turnover rate of the workers is high: ship-breaking firms are in high demand from local workers who desperately seek employment as an assurance of an income. The duality of this problem has led to its further perpetuation. Troublingly, the system has provided some of society’s most disadvantaged with a meagre means of living that otherwise may have been largely unavailable.

eshi pic 1 bang

Workers pull steel cables through contaminated mud in Chittagong (Source: National Geographic)

Despite the world’s largest decommissioned ships arriving from European countries and the Americas, they are scrapped on the shores of Chittagong. Often considered a ‘green’ industry where entire ships are completely recycled, the paradox lies in the environmentally destructive processes used to break the vessels down. The industry of ship-breaking is largely prohibited in the Western world due to its risks to human health, creating a market of cheap labour within developing countries such as Bangladesh where workers are forced to endure chemically hazardous environments and earn as little as the equivalent of $2 dollars a day. Frequently occurring gas explosions in older ships is estimated to have contributed to the deaths of 125 workers in the past 10 years. Indeed, workers who have the job of drilling in the middle of ships have arguably the highest risk of injury: the likelihood of explosions from concentrated paint containing lead, cadmium and arsenic where each ship contains up to 8000 kilos of asbestos can ruin their physical, cognitive and emotional wellbeing.

Devoid of instruments that detect dangerous levels of chemicals, workers of the ship-breaking industry tend to rely on crude measures of toxic gas detection to reduce the chance of death or chronic infection. The popular method of sending down a chicken on a string to see whether it would come back up alive is often deemed as the only way to assess whether there are any remaining poisons present within the ship. Consequently, many workers develop chronic pulmonary diseases from constant exposure to chemical hazards; disability prevalence rates are significantly higher in Chittagong than the national average. Aside from toxic chemicals, the threat of using electrical winches and blowtorches with no formal training increases the odds of being blinded or suffering from debilitating burns. Without adequate compensation and legal support, many ship-breaking workers and their families are either forced to return to work where they risk even further injury or join a spiral of poverty, unemployment and illness.

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The funeral of a 22-year-old ship-breaker who was killed during a gas explosion (Source: National Geographic)

The pain and suffering of workers within the ship-breaking industry serves as an indictment of corporative negligence, a cry for concrete legislation that protects the health of those whose labour recycles thousands of vessels from around the world. Current international policy relating to the health standards within ship-breaking processes do not take account of the multiple threats workers face on a daily basis. For example, despite the United Nations’ International Maritime Organisation passing the Hong Kong Convention which requires ship owners and states to avoid posing a risk to human safety and health, this does not protect against the process of ‘beaching’ which is used to drive ships into the mud at maximum speed during high tide: a method that has taken the lives of more than a hundred workers in Chittagong. Enforcing stringent protection measures that acknowledge worker rights in a powerful industry that propels Bangladesh’s economy has never been more vital: shining a light on the darkness of exploitation is the first step towards reaching sustainable solutions.

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