Home ACTIVISM Shipbreaking workers: the modern slaves

Shipbreaking workers: the modern slaves

It is estimated that from about 45,000 ocean-going ships in the world, 700 are taken out of service every year. Things have changed since the 1960s, when ship breaking was considered a highly mechanized operation, concentrated in industrialized countries like the United States of America, United Kingdom, Germany and Italy. In early 1980s, to maximize profits ship owners sent their vessels to the scrap yards of India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Vietnam. Places where they could pay less and even if health and safety standards were very low, workers were desperate for work.
Nowadays almost 80% of the global breaking and recycling market for ocean-going vessels is in three countries: Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The biggest ship breaking place is at the Bangladeshi port city of Chittagong, where 230 ships per year are recycled (the number is growing).

The main area for ship breaking is in Sitakund (Bhatiary to Barwalia), just north of Chittagong, the second largest city and major sea port of Bangladesh. Here ship breaking on the beach, which already at that time was prohibited in most countries, seems could be done in Bangladesh without many concern. From five-star ocean liners to grubby freighters, all are dumped on the beach with their steel, but also their asbestos and their toxins. Here, they become precious because of materials they are made of. About 95% of a ships mass can be reused. Only part of the materials on ships such as asbestos, PCBs, lead, cadmium, arsenic, zinc and chromium, black oil and burned oil (all defined as hazardous waste under the Basel Convention) is cut up by hand and left on the beach or dumped in the ocean. Environmental policies and work laws are not enforced, labour salaries are quite low and there are no standards for occupational health and labour safety. Ships are usually loaded with toxic metals that would require reprocessing in other countries, but here they are simply piled up on beaches by workers.

In Bangladesh ship breaking has become a lucrative business with few risks for the yard owners, investors and money lenders. European and North American ship brokers use the yards because they can reap an extra US$1 million or more by exploiting Asia’s lower costs and its lax environmental standards. In this country, ship breaking affair is estimated worth an annual turn over of around 1.5 billion dollars. The reason is that once ship breaking in modern countries required heavy machines and respect of safety rules (and of course high salaries). The present type of ship breaking in Bangladesh instead just require a large winch and some blowtorches. Rest of the operation is just raw by human man power.

Workers has become machines: if one dies another will replace him. Extremely cheap human power and almost no environmental and labour standards (even no pre-cleaning of the ships is required for entering the ship breaking beach in Chittagong). Hundreds of thousands of people work in ship breaking, often poor rural migrants or children. They pump millions of dollars into local economies.

Ship breaking workers do not have a formal contract between employer and employee and their wages depend on the number of hours worked as well as the type of work and skill level. They have no entitlement to overtime, sick or annual leave and their wages range from 85-180 taka (1-3 dollars a day).

More than 80% of them say they received no medical facilities from the ship yard owners, (only 5.93% say they did). And nobody cares about child labour. An army of emaciated men and children, with torn clothing, dulled eyes and missing fingers carry cables caked with rust on bare shoulders made browner by the burning sun. Quite often young boys work in toxic slick mud up to their knees. Most of them (40.75%) are young between the ages of 18-22 years old. Only 1.13% of labour is between 46-60 years old. But child (under the age of 18) are up to 10.94% of the workforce. They are migrants coming from some of the poorest regions in Bangladesh, from the poverty stricken northern region of Bangladesh. They live up to twenty in small huts often lacking sanitation. Most of them aren’t given the opportunity to organize themselves: trade unions are not allowed. And there is no complete recording of accidents or death at the ship breaking yards; dead and non-identified workers still get thrown out to sea, leaving a widow and children with no news and no income. Most of them do not have school education or training: 46.42% of yard workers are illiterate. For these workers there are no places where they can find pure drinking water neither food or toilets.

How can it happen? Simply because the government do not recognise it as an industry. Therefore industry based labour laws (like the Factory Act 1965) do not apply.

In September 2015, world leaders gathered in New York and adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (or ‘SDGs’). Like their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs chart a course for precisely which of the many development challenges the global community should focus on, in the collective struggle for more even economic and social development.

According to goal 8.7 of the SDGs, slavery shouldn’t exist anymore. But ship breakers are still here, in Chittagong, modern slaves who work to permit developed countries to carry and sell their products worldwide at lowest prices….



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