Ship-break­ing on the Rocks

Thou­sands of la­bor­ers work un­der life-threat­en­ing con­di­tions in the Bangladeshi ship-break­ing in­dus­try but the gov­ern­ment and in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions have failed to ad­dress their prob­lems so far.

Southasia - - Media ethics - By Sal­man Shah Ji­lani

As the world cel­e­brates La­bor Day on the 1st of May by or­ga­niz­ing usual work­shops, sem­i­nars and aware­ness cam­paigns, work­ers in the ship-break­ing in­dus­try in Bangladesh are in need of im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion of the in­ter­na­tional la­bor pro­tec­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions.

This in­dus­try, which em­ploys thou­sands and sup­plies Bangladesh with al­most all its steel, be­gan with an ac­ci­dent - a cy­clone to be pre­cise.

In the 1960s, a vi­o­lent storm left a gi­ant cargo ship beached on what was then a pris­tine coast­line. It didn’t take long be­fore peo­ple be­gan rip­ping the ship apart. They took ev­ery­thing and busi­ness­men took note – and that was how it all be­gan.

Some of the world’s largest de­com­mis­sioned tanker ships - mea­sur­ing up to 1,000 feet long, twenty storeys high and weigh­ing 25 mil­lion pounds - have been run up on the beaches of Bangladesh. Ship-break­ing is a highly haz­ardous ac­tiv­ity. It at­tracts ex­tremely poor farm­ers and mi­grant work­ers, as work­ing in the yards pro­vides them with higher in­come than agri­cul­tural work.

As men­tioned ear­lier, Bangladesh’s ship-break­ing in­dus­try started with an ac­ci­dent and even to­day ac­ci­dents re­lat­ing to la­bor oc­cur on a daily ba­sis on the yards, leav­ing many work­ers se­verely in­jured and some dead. You can’t re­ally be­lieve how bad it is, un­til you see it. It could be as close as you could get to hell on earth, with the smoke, the fumes and the heat. The men who la­bor here are the wretched of the earth, do­ing dirty, dan­ger­ous work, for a lit­tle more than $1 a day.

The gi­gan­tic ships are bro­ken down by thou­sands of work­ers work­ing in life-threat­en­ing con­di­tions in­side their hulls. Work­ing with­out a roadmap or a plan, the dis­man­tling it­self is dan­ger­ous enough. Add to that the ex­po­sure of chem­i­cals like nickel, chromium, and iron, as­bestos and lead in­side the un­tidy ships.

Work­ers lack even the must rudi­men­tary pro­tec­tive gear. Cut­ters, who use blow­torches to cut the gi­ant ships to pieces, wear sun­glasses rather than pro­tec­tive gog­gles, base­ball caps rather than hard­hats, wrap dirty ban­danas around their nose and mouth as they are not pro­vided re­s­pi­ra­tory masks and wear two sets of shirts rather than a welder’s vest, hop­ing the sparks will not burn through to their skin, which hap­pens ev­ery day.

Four to 6 work­ers share a small, prim­i­tive room each, of­ten sleep­ing right on the dirty con­crete floor. No one has a mat­tress. In some of the hov­els, the roof leaks when it rains, so work­ers have to sit up at night cov­er­ing them­selves with pieces of plas­tic. Their “shower” is a hand wa­ter pump. There are no weekly hol­i­days, no paid sick days, no na­tional hol­i­days or va­ca­tions. Any worker ask­ing for his proper wages is im­me­di­ately fired.

Ev­ery sin­gle la­bor law in Bangladesh and ev­ery one of the In­ter­na­tional La­bor Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized work­ers rights stan­dards are bla­tantly vi­o­lated here on a daily ba­sis.

What is rather haunt­ing is that one quar­ter of the work­ers in the ship­break­ing in­dus­try in Bangladesh are chil­dren: 10% are un­der 12 years; 1520% are un­der 15; and 25% are younger than 18, ac­cord­ing to a re­port ti­tled ‘Child break­ing Yards: Child La­bor in the Ship Re­cy­cling In­dus­try in Bangladesh.’ Helpers, of­ten chil­dren, who go barefoot or wear flip flops, use ham­mers to break apart the as­bestos in the ship, which they shovel into bags to carry out­side and dump in the sand.

Not only that each ship con­tains an av­er­age of 15,000 pounds of as­bestos and ten to 100 tons of lead paint due to which En­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age to Bangladesh’s beaches, ocean and fish­ing vil­lages has been mas­sive.

To make work­ing con­di­tions safe, there have been signs where the authorities have shown in­ter­est like the Supreme Court in the cap­i­tal city Dhaka re-as­serted that all ships brought in to be dis­man­tled for scrap metal will now be re­quired to carry proof that they have been de­con­tam­i­nated of toxic chem­i­cals be­fore en­ter­ing Bangladesh’s waters.

La­bor and trade unions which could play an ef­fec­tive role in solv­ing the prob­lems of the ship break­ing in­dus­try through unions still face dif­fi­cul­ties when reg­is­ter­ing as well as when car­ry­ing out le­git­i­mate trade union ac­tiv­i­ties. They are not ad­e­quately pro­tected in law. While the Con­sti­tu­tion pro­vides for free­dom of as­so­ci­a­tion, in or­der to reg­is­ter, unions must rep­re­sent an in­or­di­nate 30% of the work­ers in an en­ter­prise and must ob­tain au­tho­riza­tion from the gov­ern­ment. No ac­tion can be taken prior to reg­is­tra­tion, and the Reg­is­trar may also can­cel the reg­is­tra­tion with La­bor Court ap­proval. In gen­eral, only en­ter­prise unions can be cre­ated and only cur­rent em­ploy­ees can be union

mem­bers, which means that the loss of a job also leads to the loss of union mem­ber­ship. Pub­lic sec­tor work­ers are pro­hib­ited from join­ing unions, al­though there are a num­ber of notable ex­cep­tions.

Fur­ther­more, the right to strike is also lim­ited. All strikes must be called within a spe­cific time frame or the dis­pute will be con­sid­ered ter­mi­nated, and the de­ci­sion to strike must be taken by a three-quar­ters ma­jor­ity. The gov­ern­ment can ban any strike that con­tin­ues be­yond 30 days un­der “es­sen­tial ser­vices” or if the strike is con- sidered a threat to na­tional in­ter­est, in which case the 1974 Spe­cial Pow­ers Act can be used to de­tain trade union­ists with­out charge. Of­fences such as “ob­struc­tion of trans­port” carry ex­or­bi­tant penal­ties of up to 14 years’ forced la­bor.

The global in­sti­tu­tions which di­rect world trade have mis­er­ably failed as work­ers across the de­vel­op­ing world con­tinue to be in­jured, cheated, maimed, par­a­lyzed and killed on a daily ba­sis.

The G-20 coun­tries, the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion, the United Na- tions, the In­ter­na­tional Mar­itime Or­ga­ni­za­tion and the In­ter­na­tional La­bor Or­ga­ni­za­tion must be held ac­count­able and they should make sure that the world doesn’t make the de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, in­clud­ing Bangladesh, their garbage dump. The writer is an hon­orary ex­ec­u­tive at Sindh Sayed As­so­ci­a­tion (SSA), a Sindh-based NGO, which works for com­mu­nity wel­fare and de­vel­op­ment. He is a strong sup­porter of la­bor rights and writes fre­quently on the plight of work­ers across the re­gion.

La­bor­ers in the ship-break­ing in­dus­try in Bangladesh work in the most

haz­ardous of con­di­tions.

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