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.
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.