Graveyard shift: Dismantling toxic ships in Bangladesh

The rewards are small and the risks are great for Bangladeshis dismantling some of the world most toxic vessels in Chittagong

Chittagong

Hidden behind high walls just off the Dhaka-Chittagong highway, a sprawling 60-acre ship graveyard sits on the bank of the Bay of Bengal.

Piles of metal sheets and rusty pipes are strewn across the rough ground, dwarfed by the two vast oil tankers almost 70m tall and 300m long in the nearby water, that have reached the end of their lives.

Next to them loom the remains of two huge container ships, already being cut into pieces by workers who appear tiny next to these former beasts of the sea. The stench of salt and rust is overpowering. This is one of almost 70 ship-breaking yards along the coastline of Bangladesh, which together earn the country more than £800m every year.

Some 200,000 workers are believed to work at the shipyards, salvaging the steel, iron and other valuable metals. They survive in some of the worst working conditions in the country.

NGOs have protested relentlessly about the effects of the docking and cutting of these ships that mostly hail from the European Union countries and have often carried toxic cargoes.

They argue that the ships pose a risk to the local environment, as well as the health of the workers, though their protests have largely fallen on deaf ears. A group of barefoot workers carry oversized, used oxygen cylinders out of one of the ships. The oxygen is released into the more remote compartments of the ship, where toxic gases are often found, to allow workers to breathe as they venture in with blow torches and metal cutters.

One worker, 17 year-old Mohammad Afsar, who hails from Bogra in northern Bangladesh, told The Independent that he and his colleagues usually work around 12 to 15 hours per day.

Another worker, Azizul Haque, 52, who is also from Bogra, said general workers make around Tk25 (20p) per hour. “Except for some public holidays, we work throughout the year,” he said. Despite the dangers, this ship-breaking yard is regarded as one of the better ones, mainly because it offers higher wages. It is also one of the few that allows its workers to take holidays.

Only 46 per cent of yard workers are literate, according to a report by Young Power in Social Action, a Chittagong-based NGO. In most of yards, there are no provisions for clean drinking water, healthy food, hygienic toilets or decent living conditions. Only a few shipyard owners provide first-aid kits.

Bangladesh’s government declared ship-breaking an official category of industry in 2011, though most scrap- yard owners still do not abide by the industry’s labour laws.

As a result, the number of deaths and injuries sustained by workers is increasing every year. As of 8 July, local media had reported six deaths at shipyards this year. According to the Brussels-based NGO Shipbreaking Platform (NSP), the deaths of 22 workers were reported at Chittagong scrapyards in 2012. The true number is likely to be much higher. If the death of a worker is reported to the labour courts, relatives are entitled to £852 in compensation. “This was hardly paid by yard owners even two years back,” said Muhammad Ali Shahin, of the Bangladesh NSP.

Shahid Miah, 35, lost a leg when an iron plate from a ship fell on him and six other colleagues in 2012 at the Seiko ship-breaking yard. Now he and his family survive off the income from a small market store. “I was fortunate to survive. The other six died at the spot. My left leg was cut off from the waist down,” he said.

Mr Miah says he did not receive any compensation during his six months of  treatment at the Chittagong Medical College Hospital. “The local imam helped me build this store. During my career at the yards from 2009 till 2012, I have witnessed deaths of 13 workers with my own eyes,” he said.  Mohammad Alamgir, 26, of the Pakija ship-breaking yard, is receiving treatment at the same hospital’s burns unit. “Around June of last year, four of us were working inside a ship. Due to the darkness, we did not see that we were working near a cylinder. There was an explosion and next thing I know I woke up in the hospital bed three weeks later. Due to burns all over my body, I screamed day and night. The company provided me compensation of £29.80.” 

The absence of records for the number of workers involved in the ship-breaking is hampering efforts to ensure better working conditions. The life expectancy of workers at these yards is 20 years lower than in other industries. In the course of their work, they are exposed to asbestos, mercury and arsenic and other toxic materials.

Most ships contain an average of 15,000lbs of asbestos and 10 to 100 tons of lead paint. When these ships are dismantled on the beaches of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, these pollutants, along with solid waste, are dumped into the ocean. According to the NSP, over the past few decades, ship breaking has flourished in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Steel and iron from the ships satisfies 70 per cent of Bangladesh’s iron and steel demands.

The absence of an effective environmental assessment system is making it easier for yards to accept ships that once carried toxic chemicals, according to NGOs. During the first six months of 2013, EU nations sent “178 toxic ships to India, 94 to Chittagong in Bangladesh and 42 to Gadani in Pakistan,” according to Patrizia Heidegger, the executive director of NSP.

“Currently, all end-of-life vessels contain hazardous materials. Unfortunately, there are no clean ships,” Ms Heidegger said. Selling the ships to such breaking yards is legal, though Ms Heidegger argues that it poses moral questions.

“There is a clear double standard: European ship owners – and companies from other developed countries – send their end-of-life vessels to Bangladesh and India… But they are broken down under conditions that would never be acceptable for example in the UK or China.

“Our demand is clear: either the South Asian governments decide to upgrade the facilities, to co-operate with the international community, who offer assistance and demand higher standards from the yard owners, or to end the practice.”

When asked about conditions for workers at the ship-breaking yards, Hefazatur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association, which claims to represent the workers, said the descriptions of poor standards were “propaganda by the NGOs”.

“We give the highest salary to our unskilled workers as has been stated by Bangladesh’s Ministry of Labour and Employment recently,” he said. He also dismissed accusations that the ships are polluting the region’s beaches.

“Even this year, fishermen caught the highest number of fishes from the Bay. Also vegetation around the shores is aplenty,” he said. “If pollution is so serious near the shores due to ship breaking activities, how can fishes and vegetation survive?”

Pictures: Ananta Yusuf

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