Every year, the shipping industry sends 800 to 900 end-of-life ships to yards where they are recycled, mainly by hand, to recover the steel.
According to 2012 figures (to mid-October) from the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, 98 per cent of ships were dismantled in five countries: India, Bangladesh, China, Turkey and Pakistan.
In Bangladesh – the world’s second largest shipbreaking country – the national ship importing body the Bangladesh Ship Breaking Association (BSBA) reports that more than 200 ships were imported into the country for scrapping in 2012.
Although that doesn’t compare to the world leader India, which processed 527 ships in 2012, it’s the highest figure for Bangladesh since 2009.
BSBA views the boom as a positive sign that the industry is getting back on track after a 2009 court order, which banned the importation of old ships that had not been completely cleared of asbestos, PCBs, heavy metals and sludge, which effective saw the industry ground to a halt as none of the country’s 100-odd ship breaking yards were permitted to carry out environmental clearances.
These restrictions have since been relaxed by the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, hence the rise in the number of ships being recycled in Bangladesh, but not everyone is happy.
Least of all the country’s labour and environmental activists who see the re-expansion of the industry as a dangerous signal for both Bangladesh’s workers and its environment.
Ship recycling is vital to the Bangladesh economy.
Said to be worth around US$1 billion, it employs approximately 200,000 people.
The salvaged steel recovered from the ships has been estimated to account for as much as half of the country’s steel quota.
And yet, shipbreaking is also one of the most dangerous industries in the world.
Approximately 70 to 80 per cent of all end-of-life ships end up on tidal beaches in developing countries such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan where poorly-trained, poorly-equipped workers break down the ships by hand. Hundreds of workers are injured, maimed or killed in work-related accidents every year.
Some of the ships are as big as 20 storeys high and 300 metres long.
They contain toxic materials such as asbestos, lead and other heavy metals which poison workers and damage coastal ecosystems. Shipbreaking workers are also routinely exposed to carcinogenic fumes from melting metal and lead paint.
Trade unions are forbidden at shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh which means the widespread exploitation of workers – some of whom are under and even unpaid – continues unchecked.
In addition, 20 per cent of the country’s shipbreaking workforce is said to be under the age of 15.
The NGO Shipbreaking Platform recently told the story of Khorshed Alam, a 16-year-old worker earning US$3 for a 12 shift at the SRS shipbreaking yard in Chittagong who was crushed to death by a metal plate in July.
Both BSBA and the Bangladeshi Ministry of Industry claim that the shipbreaking industry has been cleaned up in recent years.
However, human rights and environmental organisations don’t agree.
They say that the absence of a monitoring system needed to check the hazardous and toxic substances released during the shipbreaking process continues to put workers, and the environment, at risk.
Critics also say that the importers do not adhere to national or international minimum standards.
Speaking to Equal Times, the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) and Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE) all said that since shipbreaking in Bangladesh recommenced in 2010, the occurrence of fatal accidents has continued on regular basis.
According to Department of Explosives (attached to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources), Greenpeace and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), one worker dies every week and one shipbreaker is injured at work every day.
These figures, however, exclude deaths by diseases caused by the toxic fumes and materials which ship breakers are exposed to at all times.
Health and safety incidents at the shipyards – which are mostly located in Sitakunda, some 20 kilometres north of the port city of Chittagong – go mostly unrecorded as entry to the shipyards is highly restricted.
However, BSBA president Hefajatur Rahman argues that all industrial work poses a potential risk and that the accidents reported are simply incidental rather than the result of structural failings.
He also claims that the working environment in Bangladesh’s shipyards has improved significantly since 2009, citing the provision of on-site training to workers and safety equipment such as gloves, masks and helmets.
“Machine equipment like cranes and magnetic chains have also been introduced to reduce the risk and workload for workers.”
Supporting Rahman’s comments, Additional Secretary of Industry Khorshed Alam said a four-member committee comprising members of environment and industry ministries and the Navy have been tasked with verifying the condition of imported ships before beaching as per International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulations. Scrapping is only permitted after the cutting plan of each ship is reviewed.
Critics however rule out the claim and allege that the present committee is actually a violation of the 2009 court order which called for the committee to represent all stakeholders.
BELA chief executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan also claims that irregularities and corruption mire the entire process of beaching and cutting ships.
"Nothing has changed in the shipbreaking sector [since 2009] except the increase of imports," she said.
David Browne/Parachute Pictures
Mohammad Omar Faruq, project manager of OSHE, agrees citing the fact that while the families of ship breakers killed at work are entitled to 100 per cent compensation (which actually works out at as little as 100,000 taka, or US$1,450), injured workers get hardly any support – financial or otherwise. Nor has any real training been implemented.
Mohammad Ali Shahin, who works with a local NGO in Sitakunda, said that in the midst of the political turmoil surrounding next year’s election, cronyism and corruption means that the ship recyclers are able to import huge old and uncertified ships into the country with little government interference.
Little attention is paid to national or international laws, he says. In particular, there is no enforcement of Hazardous Waste Management Rules and Ship Breaking rules issued by the of Industry Ministry, or International Maritime Organization, ILO or UN guidelines.
In addition, importing countries buy ships from countries which haven’t signed the Basel Convention on transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal.
After the importing success of 2012, BSBA members are keen to keep shipbreaking numbers up. They say they have the capacity to dismantle even more ships then they are already doing.
However, local media has already reported the continued desertification of green coastal belts in order to make space for more ships. According to FIDH, in 2009 some 20,000 trees were felled.
BSBA’s argue that the shipbreaking boom will play a significant role in generating employment in Bangladesh as well as ensuring the supply of valuable iron ore for rod manufacturing to meet the country’s construction needs.
Although BELA reports that the shipbreaking industry can meet only 25 per cent of the country’s steel needs and the rods produced were of a low standard for using in high rise buildings.
As cheerleaders for the industry, BSBA also claim that the industry has a positive environment impact as recycled wood from the ships helps to meet the huge demand for wood furniture.
“Entire ships equipment is sold which means we are recycling cent per cent of a ship,” said a BSBA spokesperson.
However, Tapan Datta of the Shipbreaking Workers Trade Union Forum, formed in 2009 in the absence of a specialised shipbreaking union, said that while the industry is an important source of job-creation in Bangladesh, it shouldn’t be at the expense of human or environmental rights:
“The sector’s economic impact can still be enjoyed if essential safeguards are put in place for the sake of the workers and the environment. Yes, we want recycling of ships but we want it done following the rules.”