Shipping firms are profiting from labour abuse in Bangladesh, NGOs claim
European shipping firms are knowingly sending their end-of-live ships for scrap in dangerous and polluting yards in Bangladesh, NGOs have claimed. A new report from Human Rights Watch and Shipbreaking Platform has found that Bangladeshi shipbreaking yards often take shortcuts on safety measures, dump toxic waste directly onto the beach and the surrounding environment. The report also alleges that the yards deny workers living wages, rest or compensation in cases of injury.
According to the report, there exists an extensive network used by shipowners to circumvent international regulations prohibiting the export of ships to facilities like those in Bangladesh that do not have adequate environmental or labour protections.
“Companies scrapping ships in Bangladesh’s dangerous and polluting yards are making a profit at the expense of Bangladeshi lives and the environment,” said Julia Bleckner, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Shipping companies should stop using loopholes in international regulations and take responsibility for safely and responsibly managing their waste”, she added.
The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, which will enter into force in 2025, should be strengthened to ensure a safe and sustainable ship recycling industry, campaigners have said. They argue that countries must adhere to existing international labour and environmental laws regulating the disposal of ships, including the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal.
The new report draws on interviews with 45 shipbreaking workers and workers’ relatives as well as 10 doctors, and experts on ship recycling and Bangladeshi environmental and labour laws. Alongside this, the NGOs analysed public shipping databases, company financial reports, Bangladeshi maritime import records and leaked import certificates.
Bangladesh is a top destination for scrapping ships. Since 2020, approximately 20,000 Bangladeshi workers have dismantled more than 520 ships, far more tonnage than in any other country.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has described shipbreaking as one of the world’s most dangerous jobs. Workers have consistently said that they are not provided with adequate protective equipment, training, or tools to safely do their jobs. Workers describe using their socks as gloves to avoid burning their hands as they cut through molten steel, wrapping their shirts around their mouths to avoid inhaling toxic fumes, and carrying chunks of steel barefoot.
Workers describe injuries from falling chunks of steel or being trapped inside a ship when it caught fire or pipes exploded. Lack of accessible emergency medical care at shipyards meant that, in many cases, workers were forced to carry their injured coworkers from the beach to the road and find a private vehicle to take them to a hospital.
In Bangladesh, the life expectancy for men in the shipbreaking industry is 20 years lower than the average. As a 31-year-old worker said, “If I am distracted for even a moment in the place where I work, I could die immediately.”
A 2019 survey of shipbreaking workers estimated that 13 percent of the workforce are children. Researchers noted, however, that this number jumps to 20 percent during illegal night shifts. Many workers interviewed by the NGOs began working at around the age of 13.
Shipbreaking workers said that they are often denied breaks or sick leave, even when they are injured on the job, violating Bangladesh labor laws. In most cases, workers are paid a fraction of what they are legally entitled to under Bangladesh’s minimum wage regulations for shipbreaking workers. Workers are rarely given formal contracts, which means that yard owners can cover up worker deaths and injuries. When workers attempt to unionise or protest conditions, they may be fired or harassed.
Shipyards in Bangladesh use a method called “beaching” in which ships sail full steam onto the beach during high tide to be taken apart directly on the sand instead of using a dock or contained platform. Since the work is done directly on the sand, 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 handled without protective equipment and in some cases sold on the second-hand market, affecting health in surrounding communities.
International and regional laws prohibit the export of ships to places like the yards in Bangladesh that do not have adequate environmental or labour protections. Yet many shipping companies have simply found ways to circumvent regulations and avoid culpability, Human Rights Watch and Shipbreaking Platform have said.
To ensure global capacity to safely recycle the projected massive influx in end-of-life ships over the next decade, shipping companies should invest in building stable platform facilities at a standard that fully protects workers’ rights and include mechanisms for the downstream management and disposal of waste, the NGOs have said. They argue that the EU should revise its Ship Recycling Regulation to effectively hold shipping companies liable and stop them from circumventing the law.
“Taking ships apart on tidal mudflats exposes workers to unacceptable risks with fatal consequences and causes irreparable damage to sensitive coastal ecosystems,” said Ingvild Jenssen, executive director and founder of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform. “The cost of sustainable ship recycling must be borne by the shipping sector, not people and the environment in Bangladesh,” they added.
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Image credit: Fredrik Rubensson – Creative Commons