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Workers dismantling a ship without adequate protective equipment in Chattogram Bangladesh. © 2023 Anukta
  • Many European shipping companies are knowingly sending their end-of-life ships for scrap in dangerous and polluting yards in Bangladesh.
  • Companies scrapping ships in Bangladesh’s yards use loopholes in international rules to profit at the expense of Bangladeshi lives and the environment.
  • Shipping companies should invest in building stable platform facilities at a standard that fully protects workers’ rights and handles waste disposal. The EU should revise its rules to close loopholes.

(Dhaka) – Many European shipping companies are knowingly sending their end-of-life ships for scrap in dangerous and polluting yards in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch and the NGO Shipbreaking Platform said in a report released today.

The 90-page report, “Trading Lives for Profit: How the Shipping Industry Circumvents Regulations to Scrap Toxic Ships on Bangladesh’s Beaches” finds that Bangladeshi shipbreaking yards often take shortcuts on safety measures, dump toxic waste directly onto the beach and the surrounding environment, and deny workers living wages, rest, or compensation in case of injuries. The report reveals an entire 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 labor 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.”

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, the groups said. Countries should adhere to existing international labor 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 report draws on interviews with 45 shipbreaking workers and workers’ relatives and 10 doctors and experts on ship recycling and Bangladesh environmental and labor laws, as well as analysis of public shipping databases, company financial reports and websites, Bangladesh maritime import records, and leaked import certificates. Human Rights Watch wrote to 21 companies seeking a response to our findings, including shipbreaking yards, shipping companies, flag registries, and cash buyers as well as the International Maritime Organization and four Bangladeshi government agencies.

Bangladesh is a top destination for scrapping ships. Since 2020, approximately 20,000 Bangladeshi workers have ripped apart 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 consistently said that they are not provided with adequate protective equipment, training, or tools to safely do their jobs. Workers described 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 described 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 began working at about age 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 unionize or protest conditions, they are fired and 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 labor protections. Yet many shipping companies have simply found ways to circumvent regulations and avoid culpability, Human Rights Watch and the NGO Shipbreaking Platform said.

Ships sailing under an EU flag are required to recycle their ships in an EU-approved facility, none of which are in Bangladesh. Companies avoid the requirements by using a “flag of convenience” from another country.

Flags of convenience are sold by flag registries which, in many cases, are private companies operating in a different country from their flag state. In 2022, while over 30 percent of the world’s end-of-life fleet was owned by European companies, less than 5 percent had an EU flag when they were sold for scrap.

Shipping companies hoping to dump their ships in Bangladesh usually sell their ship to a scrap dealer called a cash buyer. In many cases, the buyer uses a shell company during its sale to scrapyards in Bangladesh, making it difficult to track the entity that actually controls and benefits from the sale.

A lack of enforcement of international laws and regulatory standards further enables ships to be scrapped under dangerous and environmentally damaging conditions. Waste declarations for ships imported to Bangladesh are often completed without any oversight, transparency, or clear accreditation, with potentially fatal consequences. Exporting countries outright ignore the requirements under the Basel Convention to obtain prior informed consent from the importing country and to ensure that end-of-life ships are only sent to countries with sufficient capacity for environmentally sustainable management of toxic waste.

While the International Maritime Organization (IMO), shipping companies, and shipbreaking yards promote the Hong Kong Convention as the solution to a safe and sustainable ship recycling industry, experts and activists have long-lamented major gaps in the convention that weaken its ability to provide an adequate level of regulation.

Instead of investing time and resources in greenwashing unsafe practices, companies should invest in proven safe methods of ship recycling, and they should stop insisting that beaching ships is safe, Human Rights Watch and the NGO Shipbreaking Platform 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, Human Rights Watch and the NGO Shipbreaking Platform said. 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.”

Selected Quotes, Accounts:

Pseudonyms are used to protect the workers.

“We are not safe in the shipyard while working,” said Kamrul, 39, who has worked in shipbreaking since he was 12. “Nails hit us, or flames hit us. Most of the workers at some point get burned. I never feel safe.”

“The ship is big,” said Ahmed, 26. “We cut the ship while hanging off the side using a rope ladder. Workers sometimes slip and fall into the water.”

Hasan, 25, said he left the job in April 2021 after he fell from the second floor of a ship: “I did not have a safety harness, so I fell about 4.5 meters to the ground floor.”

“I only make 200 taka per day, so I cannot afford gumboots that cost 800 taka,” said Sohrab, 27. “I work barefoot. This is why workers often get injured due to fire or with wire or nails stabbing into our feet. The company provides nothing for our safety. If I ask for safety equipment, the company owners say, ‘If you have a problem then leave.’”

On November 19, 2017, during an illegal night shift at around midnight, Rakib, 20, was cutting a heavy piece of iron when the piece fell, chopping off his left leg, while an iron rod pierced his stomach. He was pinned to the ground for 45 minutes before other workers were able to rescue him. Because he was working in the middle of the night, there were no cars or rikshaws immediately available, so his coworkers carried him on their shoulders to a hospital. Rakib said the yard owners were only willing to pay for lifesaving treatment, and so he was discharged after 17 days. He developed gangrene on his leg, and the family had to take loans to pay for private healthcare. Rakib said that the shipyard owners have refused to pay any compensation. “I'm only 20 years old and my life is totally ruined by this accident,” Rakib said.

On June 19, 2019, Sakawat, 28, was carrying an iron bundle on his shoulder when he slipped and the bundle fell, smashing his right foot. He went to a hospital where his foot was ultimately amputated. The yard owners refused to cover his medical costs, and so he used his entire savings and borrowed from friends. He is now homeless and sleeps at the railway station where he begs for money.

When workers burn through ships without respirators and other recommended protective equipment they can inhale extremely toxic substances. Tanvir, 50, who works as a cutter, said “When we do the cutting, the smoke gives us respiratory problems like coughing and breathing difficulties. We are not provided any respirators, so we try to use our own clothes as masks but still the smoke gets through.”

Workers said they are rarely given breaks or space to safely rest, despite working six days per week in 8-12 hours shifts. Ariful, 28, said that they are reprimanded for resting: “If the foreman or the yard authorities find us sitting or taking rest, they scold,” he said.

“Workers have no written contracts,” Rashed, a worker and labor rights activist, explained. “This means employers can refuse to pay wages. Employers do not pay the minimum wage announced by the government. Owners just pay according to their will.”

“Some companies take signatures from workers only for official purposes,” said Asok, 27. “But really these ‘contracts’ are not handed over to the workers. Sometimes we sign on a contract paper but also sometimes just a blank piece of paper.”

“We do not have any workers union which can fight for our rights,” said Syed, 22. No one works on our behalf or about our rights.” Kamrul, 39, said “If workers raise their voice, they will lose their jobs.” Ahmed, 26, said:

“If the company finds out that I spoke with you then I will face retaliation and could lose my job,” said Ahmed, 26. “But what I am telling you is true. I don’t know if the ship breaking yard companies will ever think of us as human and provide us with safety equipment.”

“The life of the shipbreaking workers inside the yards or outside always remains hidden because of the pressure of the company owners,” said Sohel, 28. “If we talk or raise our voice, we will lose our jobs.”

Asok, 45, who has worked in shipbreaking since he was 10 years old, said that in recent years the shipyard owners created some storage rooms for waste, but that “they are throwing that waste into the sea.” Aijaz, 25, said that he used to be a fisherman but started working in shipbreaking because he had lost his livelihood: “Water is polluted by the ship when they throw the fuel and chemicals in the water that is harmful for the sea plants and fish. Fishermen are not getting fish as they got before. There is a scarcity of fish in the coastal areas here.”

“The sea water is being polluted by the ships and it is poisonous in the sea water, so the fisherman are not finding any fish,” said Masum, 44, who started selling fish after he was injured in the shipbreaking yards, “the fish are dying.”

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