In the summer of 2021, Mohammed Biplob, 35, was working at Arefin Enterprise, a shipyard in Chattogram Bangladesh, dismantling a 24-year-old bulk carrier ship called the Max. On August 23, he was torching through a pipe in the engine room when it suddenly exploded. Biplob said the explosion threw him against the wall, severely burning his face and breaking his back. He lost consciousness, only becoming alert when he realized his coworkers were carrying him to the road. He said at the time he could see what was happening but couldn’t speak. Biplob’s family sold all their land to pay for his continued medical treatment and he now runs a tea stall to support them.
Arefin Enterprise is just one of about 30 yards currently actively operating in Bangladesh where workers break down the world’s ships once they are no longer seaworthy. Companies like Arefin Enterprise purchase end-of-life ships, take them apart, and sell the metal and other materials after the ship is dismantled. Shipbreaking is an extremely lucrative industry for Bangladesh, contributing an estimated $2 billion to the country’s economy. More than half of the steel used in Bangladesh comes from ships broken down in Chattogram.
However, the industry in Bangladesh is highly dangerous and unregulated. Biplob explained that some regulations that could have prevented his injury were not followed. For instance, he said nobody checked the pipe, which had apparently been full of octane, to see whether it was “gas-free for hot work” as is required by Bangladesh law. Arefin Enterprise paid for Biplob’s 8-day emergency treatment and about US$160 in compensation—far less than the nearly $2,000 he was owed under Bangladesh law. But Biplob said the owner of the Max should also be held responsible.
The Max was previously owned by Greek shipping company Tide Line Inc. and never should have been in Bangladesh in the first place. 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 to prevent accidents like the one that injured Biplob. Yet neither international law nor repeated injuries and deaths of workers have deterred many shipping companies from dumping their ships in Bangladesh. Instead, they have simply found ways to circumvent regulations and avoid culpability. As one Bangladeshi activist said, “There are legal regulations, but there are also loopholes.”
The Max should have been subject to European Union (EU) regulations regarding the disposal of end-of-life ships. The European Union Waste Shipment Regulation (EUWSR) prohibits the shipment of waste—including end-of-life ships like the Max—from EU waters to non-OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries like Bangladesh. Additionally, as of December 31, 2018, the EU required all EU-flagged ships to be recycled at an EU-approved facility that is regularly and independently audited for compliance with standards on environmental protection and workers’ safety. None of the yards in Bangladesh have been approved by the EU commission audit.
However, Tide Line Inc, like many European shipping companies, avoided these regulations by selling the Max to a scrap dealer before it was declared waste and sent on its final voyage. The Max's new owner, known as a “cash buyer” because of the money they pay for end-of-life ships, then ensured the Max was out of EU waters and operating under a non-EU Comoros flag when sent for scrapping.
The EU Ship Recycling Regulation (SRR) only applies to ships flagged by an EU state, which allows companies to avoid the EU requirements by transferring a ship’s flag to a different state, known as a “flag of convenience.” Flags of convenience are sold by flag registries which, in many cases, are private companies operating in a different country from their flag state. As Ingvild Jenssen, executive director and founder of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, said in a 2022 report:
The decisions to scrap these ships under conditions that would not be allowed in the EU are taken in offices in Hamburg, Athens, Antwerp, Copenhagen and other EU shipping hubs. This reality begs for the introduction and enforcement of measures that effectively hold the real beneficial owners of the vessels responsible, regardless of the flags used and/or of the ports of departure.
The Max was sold by Tide Line Inc. to a cash buyer in June 2021 and was approved for import to Bangladesh for scrap later than month. It reached Chittagong in Bangladesh on July 10, 2021. The explosion that injured Biplob occurred just over a month later.
The fact that Tide Line Inc., the exporting port, and the scrap dealers who directly sold the ship to Arefin Enterprise could all evade liability for Biplob’s injury is common. Hundreds have been injured or killed over the last decade in Bangladeshi shipbreaking yards with little recourse or systemic reform. Written in partnership with the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, this report documents the abusive practices in the shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh and maps out the actors, policies, and loopholes, that enable these abuses.
Though most ships were originally owned by European, East Asian, and Southeast Asian companies, the final destination for over 80 percent of all end-of-life ship tonnage is one of three beaches in South Asia: Chattogram in Bangladesh, Alang in India, and Gadani in Pakistan. By cutting costs on safety, labor, and environmental protections, many of these South Asian yards offer to buy end-of-life ships at more than double the price of their next closest competitors in Turkey.
Bangladesh, in particular, is a top destination for end-of-life ships. Since 2020, approximately 20,000 Bangladeshi workers—many of whom are children—tore apart more than 520 ships, totaling far more tonnage than any other country in the world.
Dangerous Work Conditions
Higher profits for shipping companies come at a fatal price. Many Bangladeshi shipbreaking yards often cut costs through shortcuts on occupational and safety measures, dumping toxic waste directly onto the beach instead of using an adequate facility, conducting illegal and dangerous night shifts, and denying workers living wages, rest, or compensation in case of injuries. Workers and surrounding communities are frequently exposed to toxic materials in the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they grow and eat, impacting health and livelihood.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has described shipbreaking as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Workers told Human Rights Watch how their legs were cut off by falling iron, how they fell from multiple stories, or were trapped inside a ship when it caught fire or pipes exploded. Lack of protective equipment and 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 taxi or rickshaw to a hospital. “They threw me away,” said Masum, 44, who lost his leg after a pipe he was cutting exploded and the yard owner tossed him on the bed of a truck outside the yard rather than taking him to the hospital. In Bangladesh, the life expectancy for men in the shipbreaking industry is 20 years lower than the average.
Ships contain toxic materials such as asbestos, heavy metals, oil, and toxic paints and compounds. In many cases these hazardous substances are not properly identified despite international requirements to include an Inventory of Hazardous Materials (IHM). Workers are thus exposed to toxic fumes and materials without necessary protections. A 2017 study by the Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health, and Environment Foundation found that more than one third of the shipbreaking workers surveyed suffered preventable health complications from asbestos exposure.
Shipbreaking workers in Bangladesh interviewed by Human Rights Watch consistently said that they were not provided with adequate protective equipment, training, or tools to safely do their jobs. Workers described using their own 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 while barefoot.
In violation of Bangladesh labor laws, shipbreaking workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch say that they are often denied breaks or sick leave, even when they are injured on the job. In most cases, workers are paid a fraction of what they are legally entitled to under Bangladesh’s minimum wage regulations for shipbreaking workers. Typically employed temporarily, workers are rarely given formal contracts, leaving them with few means to advocate for their rights. Some workers said they were made to sign what they were told were contracts that they were not allowed to read or retain. Others said they were simply made to sign a blank piece of paper. The informal nature of the industry means that yard owners can cover up worker deaths and injuries, in some cases denying that a worker who died on the job had ever worked there. When workers attempt to unionize or protest conditions, they are fired and harassed. Tanvir, 50, a shipbreaking worker who has been in the industry since 1982 said,
While working in this industry I saw so many of my colleagues lose their lives. But still the system never changed. Workers’ rights are violated every day. I think shipbreaking is the most neglected industry in the world.
Beaching Toxic Ships on Bangladesh Shores
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. Beaching is inherently more dangerous for workers. Since the work is done directly on the sand, the worksite itself is full of hazards. As one worker, Golam, 32, explained:
There is no safety for the workers because everywhere there are iron plates and rods around and there are muddy and slippery walking paths so we cannot move easily, and we are always in danger.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for emergency vehicles to traverse the sandy beach to access the job sites in case of injuries or fire. All the workers interviewed for this report who were injured on the job had to be carried to the road by their colleagues before being taken in a privately owned vehicle to receive emergency medical treatment.
Beaching is also environmentally damaging. Toxic chemicals, oil, and other pollutants are dumped straight onto the sand and the sea while gasses and dangerous particles pollute the air. Heavy metals and other pollutants poison the soil, water, and nearby agriculture and permanently impact marine biodiversity and coastal habitats. According to the Marine Institute of the University of Chittagong, the Bangladesh shipbreaking industry has wiped out 21 species of fish and crustacean and endangered 11 other species.
Pollution from shipbreaking appears to also impact the livelihoods of surrounding fishing communities. Sohel, 28, who used to fish for a living but started shipbreaking because fishing became unfeasible, told Human Rights Watch that:
The poisonous chemicals and fuel from the ships are going into the sea waters and the fish are dying... Dead fish are flooding the shores.
Despite importing so much of the world’s waste, Bangladesh has no toxic waste processing facility. The Bangladesh Ship Reprocessing Act, passed in February 2018, declared that by February 2021 the government would establish a Waste Treatment Storage and Disposal Facility for toxic waste from ship recycling. However, at time of writing, over two years past the deadline, no such facility has been created and toxic waste continues to be dumped straight on the beach, putting the lives and livelihoods of the surrounding communities at risk, and exacerbating environmental degradation. Toxic asbestos is sold directly in the marketplace in what locals call “asbestos villages,” where stoves and other furniture made from scrapped asbestos are sold.
Ship recycling does not need to be this dangerous or environmentally damaging. There are safe and sustainable alternatives. In particular, the use of a stable platform—called dry-docking or pier-breaking—is much safer than beaching, because it allows for the use of lifting equipment and cranes, makes the site accessible in case of emergency, and makes it easier to safely contain and manage toxic waste and other hazardous materials. There are dozens of ship recycling yards, primarily based in Europe, that safely recycle ships using environmentally sustainable practices.
The NGO Shipbreaking Platform estimates that the entire shipbreaking industry worldwide could feasibly transition to dry-docks by 2030. But alternatives like dry-docking cost more, as do facilities for safe disposal of toxic waste, training, safety equipment, fair wages, and insurance for worker injuries and deaths.
The Role of the International Shipping Industry
An entire industry exists to enable shipowners to circumvent international regulations so that shipping companies can continue to cheaply discard ships in Bangladesh’s dangerous yards.
To avoid international, regional, and domestic laws, companies can sell the ship to a cash buyer, who serves as a scrap dealer for end-of-life ships. In many cases, the cash buyer will use a shell company as the new registered owner of the ship during its sale to scrapyards in Bangladesh, making it difficult to track the ship’s true beneficial owner. The cash buyer then registers the ship under a flag from a state with lower regulatory burdens—called flags of convenience.
Shipping companies frequently use flags of convenience throughout a ship’s operation to circumvent regulations, including labor rights at sea. But they are especially common at end-of-life when a company is scrapping a ship in South Asia. In 2022, while over 30 percent of the world’s fleet was owned by European companies, less than 5 percent had an EU flag when they were sold for scrap. Publicly available shipping records indicate that all ships with beneficial owners based in the EU, the US, or UK scrapped in Bangladesh over the last four years entered Bangladesh waters under a flag of convenience.
A lack of enforcement of international laws and regulatory standards further enables ships to be scrapped under dangerous and environmentally damaging conditions. Exporting countries outright ignore the requirements under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (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. On the import side, Bangladesh shipbreaking yards avoid scrutiny under national laws by outsourcing inspection reports and required documentation to cash buyers and other unscrupulous middlemen. Waste declarations for ships imported to Bangladesh are often completed without any oversight, transparency, or clear accreditation, with potentially fatal consequences.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the UN entity responsible for regulating and enforcing international shipping standards, including environmental and labor protections, and has the authority to enforce these requirements. However, the structure of the IMO limits its ability to act as an effective regulator. Decisions at the IMO enter into force when a certain number of states that represent a certain percentage of the world fleet have ratified. Since flags of convenience are up for sale, countries that flag more ships have more influence at the IMO, and also have the greatest incentive to keep regulatory burdens low.
On June 26, 2023, Bangladesh and Liberia acceded to the IMO’s Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, 2009 (the Hong Kong Convention), thus meeting the requirements for the convention to enter into force on June 26, 2025. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, an IMO official said that the Hong Kong Convention is “making a positive contribution in regards of the right of workers to a safe and clean working environment.” However, while the 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 the level of regulation that its proponents promise. Experts have repeatedly raised concerns that the Hong Kong Convention will serve to greenwash the shipbreaking industry, without ensuring much-needed regulation. At the same time, exporting countries continue to ignore the Basel Convention, which applies to end-of-life ships, and offers a higher level of control than the Hong Kong Convention.
Bangladeshis should not suffer the environmental and health impact of dismantling toxic ships under unsafe conditions simply because their lives are considered cheaper. Instead of investing time and resources in greenwashing unsafe practices, companies should invest in proven methods and they should stop insisting that beaching is safe. To ensure global capacity to sustainably recycle the 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 of waste.
Existing international and domestic regulations do not go far enough and, in some cases, are designed to be ignored. To ensure workers are protected, laws prohibiting the sale of end-of-life ships to yards without adequate safety and environmental measures should apply to the country of the ship’s beneficial owner, including for at least two years after its sale; shipping companies should face economic costs for circumventing regulations; exporting countries should adhere to the requirements set out in the Basel Convention and the Basel Ban Amendment; and cash buyers and other intermediaries should be properly regulated.
To the Government of Bangladesh:
- Fully enforce the High Court’s 18-point directive that requires rigorous health and safety standards and labor rights protections in shipbreaking yards.
- Immediately shut down any shipbreaking yards employing children and/or holding night operations or where there are other serious violations of workers’ rights.
- Adequately compensate all workers who have been injured (or, in the case of death, their families), as provided under the Labour Act, 2006 and the Shipbreaking and Recycling Rules, 2011.
- Move all ship recycling operations off the beach and to proper industrial platforms in accordance with the Basel Convention Technical Guidelines on Ship Recycling to ensure full containment of pollutants.
- Build a functioning hazardous waste storage and disposal facility that meets international standards for the management of toxic waste from shipbreaking.
To the European Commission:
- As part of the 2023/24 review, amend the EU Ship Recycling Regulation (SRR) to apply to the ship’s beneficial owner, not the flag state. If the ship is sold, the regulation should remain applicable to the previous owner for no less than two years from the date of sale.
- Include in the revised regulation a “return-scheme” for ships as described in the EU SRR preamble. The return scheme would require any ship that trades in EU waters to pay a fee towards a recycling license, accumulating capital over time. The total will then only be paid back to the last owner of the vessel if the ship is recycled at an EU-approved facility.
- Require all shipping companies conducting operations in the EU to implement a risk-based approach due diligence policy on their whole value-chain in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), recognizing shipbreaking as a high-risk business operation, and to publicly report all sales, including to cash buyers, to ensure the traceability of the ship’s beneficial ownership over its lifetime.
- Ensure that the proposed EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) covers the full value chain, including the use, disposal, and recycling of goods.
To Shipping Companies:
- In line with the UNGP and with the upcoming CSDDD, adopt formal and explicit policies that ensure the company maintains oversight of where ships are recycled and ensures that ships are not discarded in yards that use the beaching method and/or violate labor rights.
- Invest in ship recycling facilities so that they can ensure full containment of environmental contaminants, stable industrial platforms, protective equipment, and environmentally sound management of hazardous materials, including disposal.
This report is produced in collaboration with the NGO Shipbreaking Platform which provided expert analysis and additional investigations tracking ship movements and transactions.
The report is based on Human Rights Watch interviews with 45 shipbreaking workers and relatives of shipbreaking workers. We also interviewed 2 doctors working in Chattogram and 8 experts on shipbreaking, ship recycling, and Bangladesh environmental and labor laws.
All workers interviewed provided verbal informed consent to participate and were assured that they could end the interview at any time or decline to answer any questions. No compensation was provided for any interviews. Most workers quoted in this report have been given pseudonyms and, in some cases, other identifying information has been withheld to protect them from retaliation.
The report also relies heavily on analysis of primary data sources including public shipping databases, company financial reports and websites, Bangladesh maritime import records, and leaked import certificates.
Human Rights Watch wrote to 12 shipping or shipbreaking broker companies, 6 flag agencies and 3 shipbreaking yards as well as to the International Maritime Organization, and the Bangladesh Department of Environment, the Ministry of Industries, the Ministry of Labour and Employment, and the Bangladesh Ship Recycling Board.
Human Rights Watch received replies from A.P. Moller – Maersk A/S on May 29, 2023, Best Oasis Ltd on June 1, 2023, the International Maritime Organization on June 29, 2023, and Novonor on July 3, 2023.
These letters and replies are included in appendices I-VII, except for the reply from Best Oasis which the company requested we do not include for publication.
I. Dangers of Shipbreaking in Bangladesh
Labor in Bangladesh’s shipbreaking industry is largely informal, unregulated, and rarely subject to occupational health and safety inspections or controls. Workers in many Bangladesh shipbreaking yards cut wires and pipes, blast through ship hulls with blowtorches, climb multiple stories, and haul scrap metal, often without adequate protective gear. Many are killed and seriously injured by explosions, are crushed by falling chunks of steel, and are burned by flammable gases, liquids, and other materials in the ships.
Workers persistently described feeling afraid for their lives when they went to work. Abul, 31, said: “If I am distracted for even a moment in the place where I work, I could die immediately.” Another worker, Kamrul, 39, who has worked in shipbreaking for 27 years since he was 12 years old, said that injuries in the yards are common. “We are not safe in the shipyard while working,” he said. “Nails hit us, or flames hit us. Most of the workers at some point get burned. I never feel safe.” Sabbir, 27, who has been working in the yards for seven years, said he doesn’t want to work in shipbreaking because it is too dangerous but feels he has no other options. “Nobody wants to work here because they know there is a risk and accidents may occur at every step,” he said. “The owners do not provide us with any safety measures. They overlook these things.” During a November 2022 visit, the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, Claudia Mahler, noted that “while accidents regularly happen, sometimes leading to death, no statistical data on deaths and disabilities caused by accidents is collected.”
Many shipbreaking workers are children. 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 of the workers interviewed for this report began working as children, around 13 years old.
Lack of Occupational Safety and Hazard Protections
Once ashore, the shipbreaking process is done in two stages: cutting and carrying. In the cutting stage, workers (“cutters” and “helpers”) dismantle the ship by hand and with oxygen-acetylene or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) torches. Injuries linked to this phase are frequently caused by fires, or explosions, and falling or being crushed by falling metal. In the carrying stage, workers (“carriers”) drag steel and other parts ashore piece by piece. Carriers often lack adequate equipment including steel-toed boots or gloves. Instead, carriers in some cases are working barefoot, carrying chunks of steel over the sand. Repeated heavy lifting without adequate training or tools can cause serious injury. In other cases, carriers use three-wheelers or other small vehicles to pull heavier chunks that can weigh up to a thousand tons.
Failure to safely manage flammable substances
Ships are full of flammable substances such as diesel, oil, gas, oxygen tanks, and polymers. According to the Basel Convention Technical Guidelines and the Bangladesh government 2011 Shipbreaking and Recycling Rules (further discussed in Section II), the vessel should be secured before any cutting begins, all flammable substances should be either safely removed or secured, and precautions should be in place. But many shipyards in Bangladesh rarely conduct adequate inventories of material on the ship before the cutting begins, leaving workers at risk of serious burns, death, or injury from explosions.
Syed, 22, who works as a cutter, said: “We cut the ship using oxygen and LPG gas torches. When we cut a tanker or oil line of the ship, there is always a high risk of explosion. We work knowing that at any time a fire incident can take place.” Ahmed, 26, who also works as a cutter said: “We feel afraid while cutting the oil pipeline because sometimes sparks from our torches create fire which can easily burn a cutter man.”
Workers are also at risk of falling from the ship or can be crushed by falling chunks of steel or other parts. “The ship is big. We cut the ship while hanging off the side using a rope ladder. Workers sometimes slip and fall into the water,” Ahmed said. Hasan, 25, who worked as a cutter, said he left the job in April 2021 after he fell from the second floor of a ship:
The ship was a container ship, so it already had crane installed in it with a ladder to the edge of the crane. While I was climbing the ladder to remove the crane, the ladder slipped. I did not have any safety harnesses, so I fell about 4.5 meters to the ground floor.
Hasan received 15 stitches in his head and said the doctor told him his skull was fractured and that it would take two months to fully recover. When we interviewed him eight months later he said he still has severe headaches: “I feel pain. Whenever I hear any sound, it affects me and my brain badly.” He explained that while he was in the hospital the yard did not pay his wages. The yard paid for five days in hospital but nothing afterwards.
Failure to provide adequate protective equipment
According to the 2011 Shipbreaking and Recycling Rules, all shipbreaking workers must be provided with protective equipment “including head protection, face and eye protection; respiratory protective equipment; hearing protection; protectors against radioactive contamination; protection from falls and appropriate clothing.” But workers in Bangladesh report that they rarely have adequate equipment, putting them at risk of serious injury and death. Ahmed, 26, a cutter, explained:
The company provides very low standard gloves. They are supposed to give us two pairs of gloves every 15 days, but we only get one. They give us some safety gear, but it is very low quality. They never give safety goggles, which are essential since the sparks of fire from cutting the iron are very dangerous and there are so many cases where workers get eye injuries.
Mizanur, 38, a cutter who has worked in the shipbreaking yards since he was 18, said that the safety gear provided is of “very low quality. It doesn't fit on our bodies. The glasses fall right off,” he said. Abul, another worker, said:
I am not convinced the safety gear provided by the yard authority is adequate. If they would give us proper equipment, then it would be easier for us to work. The company gave us helmets, gumboots, gloves, and glasses which are all low quality. Even when the yard authorities provide us with this safety equipment, they take the money from our wages. Otherwise, we buy safety equipment ourselves. The gloves are so low quality that sometimes they get burned by the sparks of fire. The work we do here is really dangerous, but we do not have other options.
Syed, 22, said that he and his coworkers get gloves once a week, but the gloves are such poor quality they are unusable within three days. “When the gloves do not work anymore, sometimes we use socks to protect our hands from the flame,” he said. He also said that the protective eyewear is inadequate: “The safety goggles that they give us to protect our faces while cutting with fire does not work properly after three days. It becomes blurry. The glasses costs only BDT30 [$0.35] but we have to wait 10 to 15 days for new ones so sometimes we don’t wait for the owner, we buy it ourselves.” Syed makes BDT 585 per day ($6.82).
Workers say that if they complain about the lack of protective equipment, they are told they can quit. Asif, 25, who has been working as a cutter for seven years, said that the yard he works in does not provide any protective gear at all. He said “If I go to the office and ask for gloves or mask, the company refuses and says if you want to work, then work without gear. Otherwise leave the yard.”
All the workers interviewed for this report said most yards sometimes provide the cutters with limited protective equipment, but helpers and carriers get nothing. Ahmed explained that gloves and goggles are not provided at all to the helper who works with him. He said that when his helper is lifting heavy objects, he lends him his own gloves. “Gloves are so important for the helper job because the sheets of iron and ship pieces are so hot when they are cut, it is very important to wear gloves, but the company never provides gloves,” he said. He said he also bought his helper protective eyewear from the market, though Ahmed makes BDT 550 (US$6.40) per day.
Carriers lift heavy loads and risk severe injuries, particularly because the beaching method makes safer transportation impossible. Sohrab, 27, has worked in one yard for eight years as a carrier. His job is to carry oxygen cylinders weighing about 120 kg each (260 lbs) from the ship to the shore. He said the yard provides no protective equipment to carriers—even boots—and so he works barefoot. He earns 200 BDT ($2) per day and says he cannot afford to buy his own gumboots. He said:
I only make 200 taka per day so I cannot afford gumboots that cost 800 taka. I work barefoot. This is why workers often get injured with fire or 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.”
Lack of access to emergency medical care
Bangladesh’s 2011 Ship Breaking and Recycling Rules require that shipbreaking yards have dedicated and accessible health facilities with an “adequate number of beds for a trauma unit, orthopedic unit, burn unit, intensive care unit, other chronic diseases, and disabilities treatment unit.” While, there is a healthcare clinic run by the Bangladesh Ship Recycling Board (BSRB), it only has facilities to treat primary injuries. In the case of any major injury, workers need to be transported either to a private clinic or, more often, the government-run Chattogram Medical College Hospital.
The shipbreaking rules also require accessibility for ambulances and other emergency vehicles. But because shipbreaking in Bangladesh is done on the sand, it is nearly impossible for emergency vehicles, even if they are available, to get to the work site. After an explosion on a ship in 2019, for example, video footage shows barefoot workers without any emergency equipment carrying their injured colleagues. In every case of injury documented in this report, injured workers said their colleagues had to carry them from the worksite to the road, in most cases without a stretcher. Once they reached the road, in most cases, they had to hire a rickshaw, car, or “CNG” (motorized rickshaw) to get to the hospital.
Nurul, 24, who had been working in shipbreaking yards since he was 14, suffered severe injuries to his spinal cord on April 27, 2022, when a heavy piece of iron fell over two meters and hit him on the back. He said his coworkers carried him to the car because there was no stretcher and eventually the yard owner hired a private car where he rode in the backseat to the hospital, potentially exacerbating his spinal cord injuries.
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 to transport him to the hospital, so his coworkers carried him on their shoulders to the nearest clinic. The clinic refused to take him, saying they didn’t have the capacity to treat injuries so severe, at which point they were finally able to hire a private car to take him to Chittagong Medical College where he underwent treatment for 17 days.
Some workers said shipyard owners delayed their transport to the hospital by refusing to pay for transportation costs. Omar, 30, said he was injured in January 2018 when a heavy piece of iron landed on his leg. He said the owners refused to help transfer him to emergency care and it took about eight hours before he was able to get a vehicle to the hospital. Masum, 44, said that on December 12, 2018, he was cutting through a pipe at a steel rolling mill when it exploded. He said workers helped carry him to the road, but the owner just tossed him on the bed of a truck outside the yard. “They just threw me away,” he said. He said his coworkers called his brother who came and took him to the hospital where his leg was ultimately amputated.
When Aarul, 39, fell 6 meters from a ship, he landed on scattered pieces of iron that fractured his leg and knocked out five teeth. Instead of taking him to the hospital, however, the yard managers took him to his room and left him there. He said he was in severe pain, so he called a worker who helps advocate for other workers’ rights who went and confronted the shipyard owner. The owner finally agreed to take Aarul to the BSRB hospital where he received treatment for four days. He was out of work for about eight months without wages and he is working in another shipbreaking yard now. He said, “It feels risky because I know there is no safety for the workers anywhere in this sector. But I have to keep working in the yards because if I stay at home who will give me food?”
During her 2022 visit, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, Claudia Mahler, similarly noted that older workers are frequently not provided with adequate protection equipment and have limited access to healthcare and social protection.
Refusing to provide medical care, compensation
The 2011 Shipbreaking and Recycling Rules as well as the 2006 Labour Act require employers to pay for treatment of workplace injuries, to cover wages up to a year during recovery, and to pay compensation in case of injury or death, including for longer-term health impacts such as asbestosis and cancer. Under the 2011 Shipbreaking and Recycling Rules, after an accident, a yard is supposed to immediately suspend operations for a week while the Bangladesh Ship Recycling Board conducts an independent investigation and mandates any necessary changes. In case of injury, the board is supposed to initiate penal action and, in the case of negligence, suspend yard operations for a year and mandate payment of about $1,800 to injured workers alongside coverage of complete treatment and up to one year’s worth of wages. The compensation for fatality is $4,500.
However, these measures are rarely taken, and workers said that it is often difficult to secure payment for their treatment. In many cases, workers said they received inadequate care either when the yard owner refused to pay for a certain procedure or simply stopped paying. Some workers received compensation for their injuries, but rarely the full amount required under Bangladesh law. The minimum wage requirements for shipbreaking workers set by the Ministry of Labour and Employment include a monthly stipend for medical care, however, none of the workers interviewed received this stipend.
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 Chittagong Medical College hospital where his foot was ultimately amputated. For four weeks he repeatedly requested that the yard owners cover his medical costs, but they refused. He ultimately paid the hospital bills using his entire savings and with loans from his friends. He is now homeless and sleeps at the railway station where he begs for money. He tried filing a case in the local labor court but could not afford the lawyers’ fees so dropped his case.
Sabbir, 27, said that in 2020 he was working as a helper when a piece of iron dropped from the top of the ship and broke his left hand and cut through a tendon. The yard owners took him to the hospital but would only pay for his hand to be bandaged and for some painkillers. He was unable to work for three months and still can hardly grip with his left hand. However, the yard owners did not pay for any additional treatment or any wages while he was out of work, as is required by law.
Rakib, 20, the worker described above who lost his leg and was injured in the stomach by a steel rod, said that when he went to Chittagong Medical College Hospital, the doctors only treated his stomach injury and stopped the bleeding from his leg. He said his mother begged the doctors to fully treat his leg, but the doctors told her that the yard owners were only paying for lifesaving treatment. Rakib was discharged after 17 days in hospital, but after a few days he developed gangrene on his leg. His mother had to take loans to pay for private healthcare, spending $1,000 to treat the gangrene. Rakib and his family have repeatedly sought compensation from the shipyard owners, but he says they have refused to pay anything. “I'm only 20 years old and my life is totally ruined by this accident,” Rakib said.
Sohrab, 25, said that in February 2022 he was carrying an oxygen cylinder when he slipped and the cylinder—weighing about 120kg—fell on his leg and smashed his toes. He said the shipyard owners just gave him painkillers and refused to take him to the hospital. He went on his own to a local clinic where his treatment cost $9 per day, but after ten days he left because he could no longer afford medical care. The day before we interviewed Sohrab, he was working in the yard when a wire pierced his bare foot. He said he did not have enough money to go to the hospital, so he purchased painkillers and pulled the wire out of his own foot.
Nurul, 24, who suffered a spinal cord injury when a heavy piece of iron fell from eight feet and hit him on the back in 2022, said that the yard owner paid some of the hospital bill but eventually stopped. He says he feels severe pain when he lies down or tries to work but he cannot afford pain medication. The company stopped paying his salary as soon as he was injured and never paid any compensation aside from $20 while he was in the hospital.
Some workers, such Asok, 45, took their employer to labor court to cover the cost of treatment. Asok was injured when a heavy piece of iron fell on his back. He said he went to the company office at the yard, but it was closed so he went to the hospital himself. He contacted the yard owners from the hospital asking them to cover the cost of treatment, but they refused. He left the hospital without treatment because he couldn’t afford care. He eventually took the yard owners to labor court, and the court required the owners to cover the treatment cost and to cover half his wages (5,000 BDT (US $50)) for five months. Asok is no longer able to work due to his injuries so now his 18-year-old son is working in the nearby steel rolling mill. “My family is helpless, he said. “We need to survive so I send my son to the steel rolling mill, but my son is also at risk working there.”
Abusive Working Conditions
Bangladesh has laws to protect the rights of workers, but they are seldom properly enforced leading to serious abuses.
No Rest, No Sick-Leave
Workers said they are rarely given breaks or space to safely rest, despite working six days per week in 8-12 hours shifts. Abul, 31, said, “There is no way I can take rest while working for 12 hours. I went to a seminar on workers’ rights where they told us that we should legally have some time and spaces to rest, but in reality that never happens.” Ariful, 28, said that they take a lunch break in the middle of their eight hour shift but otherwise will be reprimanded for resting: “If the foreman or the yard authorities find us sitting or taking rest, they scold,” he said.
Though the 2011 Ship Breaking and Recycling Rules require that shipbreaking yards provide dedicated onsite facilities to take rest, workers say they have nowhere to go. Workers described even trying to rest inside of the ships. Ahmed, 26, said “there is no specific rest room for the workers, we take rest sometimes on the cabin of the broken ships or using the toilet of the broken ships.” Another worker, Mohammed, 39, who has been working in shipbreaking since he was 13, said “There is nowhere to take rest or to eat. When we are working in a ship, we take our foods and snacks on the ship. There is no rest actually.”
A lack of safe rest space is particularly dangerous during night shifts. Syed, 22 said that yard owners provide breaks during night shift but they cannot leave the yard and there is nowhere to safely rest. “When we work at night, we do not get have any safe place to take rest, you cannot just sleep at the yard.”
Workers generally described being given two days of sick leave if they are hospitalized, during which they will still be paid their wages. After two days, wages generally stop, even if the worker is hospitalized due to an injury on the job. Ariful, 28, who had injured his hand lifting heavy iron, explained:
If we have minor injuries, then we have to manage on our own. But if something like amputation type injuries happen then sometimes the yard owner bears the cost, but not in all cases. If I am out of work for more than two days, then they start cutting down the wages.
Faizul, 32, said that in 2021 he cut his leg on a piece of metal wire on the worksite. He said the company paid for basic treatment but that he was paid no wages while he recovered for 15 days at home. He said, “there was no salary for those 15 days because if we don’t go to work, we will get no money.”
Ahmed, 26, said that when he was injured on the job, he lost wages and had to pay for medical treatment:
I was injured four years ago when my veins were cut by some of the scraps. The company provided treatment for only three days. When there was no improvement, I went back home and the company did not even pay wages, let alone cover medical costs.
Lack of Labor Protections
“Shipbreaking workers are usually illiterate and extremely poor, so they just cannot speak for their rights. They are afraid they will lose their jobs,” explained a labor activist. He said that because workers who speak up are frequently fired and they are dependent on those wages to survive, it is difficult for workers to collectively demand their rights.
Denial of fair wages
The Ministry of Labour and Employment set a minimum monthly wage for shipbreaking workers. However, workers are consistently paid far below the required amount.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 23 cutters for this report. On average, their reported monthly wages were 11,564 BDT ($121.72), about half of the minimum wage for ship cutters of approximately 21,250 BDT ($193,67) per month set by the Ministry of Labour and Employment. None of the workers interviewed were receiving monthly stipends for housing, healthcare, and transportation included in the minimum wage total. Helpers we interviewed were earning as little as 5,200 BDT ($54.73) per month— one third of the approximately 16,000 BDT ($145.83) per month that they should be paid according to the minimum wage laws. Helpers were also not being paid the housing, health, and transportation allowances they are owed.
Ariful, 28, who earns 310 BDT ($2.83) per day, said that eight years ago, when he started working as a helper, he earned 290 BDT ($2.64). “We tried to negotiate or protest to raise our wages,” he said, but succeeded in getting only a raise of 20 taka ($0.18). Rashed, a worker and labor rights activist explained:
Workers have no written contracts. 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.
Shipbreaking workers are mostly migrants from the impoverished northern part of the country who are employed in the yards through labor contractors. Contractors in this case are other workers who take a commission for bringing in new workers. These arrangements are almost always based solely on a verbal agreement. Once workers are employed in the yard, yard owners will sometimes require them to sign a contract that they were not allowed to read or retain. Asok, 27, explained:
Some companies take signatures from workers only for official purposes. So, when we get our wages, sometimes we have to give our signature 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.
If workers protest conditions or try to unionize, they say they are fired. Kamrul, 39, said “If workers raise their voice, they will lose their jobs.” As Abul, 31, said, “we don’t protest as that might bring retaliation to us.” Syed, 22, said:
No one talks on our behalf. And we do not have any workers union which can fight for our rights like there are so many for the ready-made garment workers. No one works on our behalf or about our rights, even the foreman who are supervising us are also work on behalf of the owners, not for us.
Tanvir, 50, said that he and other workers have been trying to unionize since 1985, but that such organizing is deterred when workers are fired. “When I led a protest against the owner, they fired me from the work,” he said. He filed a lawsuit after being fired but because he didn’t have a contract, the shipyard just claimed he never worked there. Another worker and labor rights activist, Rashed, said that he has been fired more than 30 times from different yards for trying to organize workers.
Activists complained that some of the ship recycling yards have created so-called “yellow unions” that are not genuinely independent, and instead are established by the yard owners to control workers and prevent them from establishing a union of their choice.
A Concealed Industry
Workers say increased scrutiny from journalists and NGOs of conditions in the yards over the past few years has led to a tightening of restrictions on communicating with people outside the yards or providing access to the worksites, and several said that they are not allowed to bring their phones into the yard. Journalists and non-governmental organizations are rarely given access and workers face retaliation for speaking out. Ahmed, 26, said:
If the company finds out that I spoke with you then I will face retaliation and could lose my job. 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. They should understand that if anything happened to us, it is our families who would suffer, not the company.
Another worker, Sohel, 28, explained: “The life of the shipbreaking workers inside the yards or outside always remains hidden because of the pressure of the company owners. If we talk or raise our voice, we will lose our jobs.”
In order to avoid public scrutiny, some yard owners will break ships at night which only increases risk of accidents, despite night operations being prohibited under the 2011 Shipbreaking and Recycling Rules. Dr. Shaheen Chowdhury, law professor at the University of Chittagong, explained that “employers increasingly employ people at night because it is easier to circumvent media and journalists. There is no watchdogging at night. It is a technique to avoid monitoring and surveillance.”
Exposure to Toxics
End-of-life ships are considered toxic waste under the Basel Convention because they are full of toxic materials: asbestos is used as insulation; heavy metals like cadmium, lead, and chromium are in paints and coatings for batteries, motors, generators, and cables; mercury is in thermometers, electrical switches, lights, and often in vessels that have operated in the oil and gas extraction sector; oils, fuel, harmful bacteria, and toxic sludge are found in bilge water, sewage, and ballast water; Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are in cables. A 2010 World Bank study projected that between 2010-2030, Bangladesh would import 79,000 tons of asbestos, 240,000 tons of cables containing PCBs, and nearly 70,000 tons of toxic paints via end-of-life ships. Floating Oil Production, Storage and Offloading tankers (FPSO) and Floating Oil Storage and Offloading tankers (FSO) may also contain naturally radioactive substances.
Without proper protective equipment, processes, and storage, handling, and disposal facilities, workers and surrounding communities are exposed to these toxic materials in the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they grow and eat.
When workers burn through ships in the cutting phase, toxic chemicals and minerals are released into the air. Without respirators and other recommended protective equipment, workers inhale extremely toxic substances, especially when dismantling inside confined spaces. 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.” Faisal, 22, said:
When we cut down oil tanker type vessels sometimes gas leaks from the pipes and we feel sick and have breathing difficulties and sometimes chest pain. This is what work is like for the cutter man. We are bound to work even if those gas emissions cause health problems for us.
Ahmed, 26, said “we need masks, but the foreman never pays any attention to that request. We have to use our t-shirts which we wrap around our mouths as masks.”
Asbestos is one of the most common toxic materials found in older ships. Though the use of asbestos in new ships was banned in 2002, most of the ships coming to Bangladesh for breaking now were built before 2002.
Inhalation can also lead to asbestosis, a form of pulmonary fibrosis (scarring of lung tissues), which causes difficulty breathing. Asbestosis is highly prevalent among shipbreakers in Bangladesh. A 2017 study by the Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health, and Environment Foundation found that more than one third of the shipbreaking workers surveyed who had worked in shipbreaking for at least ten years were suffering from asbestosis. Asbestosis can lead to cardiovascular disease as a result of severely decreased lung capacity and significantly increases risk of mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Nazmul, 51, who works as a cutter and is an advocate for shipbreaking workers’ rights said that he knows 33 workers with asbestosis, himself included. He said he suffers from chest pain and shortness of breath, and that four of his colleagues have died from complications related to asbestos exposure. In a focus group discussion with 15 shipbreaking workers with asbestosis, all of the participants described experiencing chest pain, physical weakness, breathing problems, and difficulty doing day-to-day tasks. Imran, 59, said “I cannot go upstairs, I am deteriorating day by day.”
Dr. Rajat Biswas, an internist and assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at Chattogram Maa-O-Shishu Hospital Medical College explained that out of his 16 current patients who are shipbreaking workers, 15 are suffering from respiratory conditions—mostly asbestosis—often requiring a nebulizer to help them breathe (an inhaler that delivers medication).
The medicine and Inhaler required to ease symptoms costs about 11,000 BDT per month (US$118), but workers say their employers have refused to cover medical costs, despite their legal obligation to do so under the Bangladesh Shipbreaking and Recycling Rules, 2011 and the mandated medical stipend included in the minimum wage legislation for shipbreaking workers. Some workers suffering from asbestosis have formed an Asbestos Victims Rights Network and have held seminars and a peaceful protest calling on their employers to pay for the treatment and lost wages related to the disease, but they have received no response. Arif said, “Since the asbestosis diagnosis I feel scared all the time. I need medicine and I need money.”
Some former workers with asbestosis said they were no longer able to work because it was too difficult to breathe and maintain stamina. As a result, their children had to drop out of school to help make ends meet. Ali, 42, said that his 16-year-old daughter had to leave school to work in a garment factory. “She was a student, but her education stopped now because I cannot work,” he said.
Asbestosis is almost entirely preventable with adequate safety procedures and protection equipment. But as Dr. Biswas said, “They need a better environment, better awareness,” he said. “They don’t know the toxins they are exposed to, how to prevent exposure. They are untrained. What they have learned has been on the spot.”
Having proper procedures in place to handle and dispose of asbestos is critical. One ship recycling expert explained that “rules and regulations within the EU concerning the management, removal, and disposal of asbestos products are very strict. Removal can only be done by specialized licensed companies, asbestos waste has to be double bagged and can only be transported in closed and sealed containers, disposal can be glazing or mixing with concrete to permanently fix the fibers.” 
According to the 2011 Bangladesh Ship Breaking and Recycling Rules, all shipyards are required to have an asbestos storage unit on site and workers must be provided with equipment for the safe removal of asbestos. Yards are required to remove asbestos in leakproof containers and dispose of it according to regulations set by the Department of Environment. But these procedures are rarely followed. Instead, workers and experts say the asbestos is just sold in the local market in what some workers called “asbestos villages.” Asbestos from ships is used in cooking stoves and other furniture for sale. “The way they are breaking it and transporting it to different shops is a whole mess,” one Bangladeshi activist said. “They just take it from the ship and bring to the shops.”
Soil and Water Pollution
Studies over the last decade have found that heavy metals such as iron, manganese, cobalt, copper, zinc, lead, cadmium, nickel, and mercury released from the ships on Bangladesh’s shores are contaminating the soil and groundwater, and via these, local fruits and vegetables. For example, a 2020 study by researchers from the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research measured the metal contamination of soil around shipbreaking areas and food crops grown nearby and found that some crops were so heavily contaminated with dangerous heavy metals that they exceeded the threshold set by the World Health Organization for safe consumption. The researchers estimated that copper, zinc, cadmium, and lead are “contributing to the potential human health risk in the ship breaking area.”
Cadmium is carcinogenic and exposure through drinking water can result in neurodegeneration and other diseases. When workers breathe in cadmium through industrial dust, exposure can lead to kidney damage and lung injuries. Exposure to chromium can lead to neurological diseases and several cancers. Mercury, when exposed through inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact, attacks the nervous system and can result in lifelong disability and even death in higher doses. Mercury is typically absorbed into the surface of a ship’s carbon steel tank walls, piping, and pumps and is frequently found in oil extraction ships. When heated up by simple methods such as sand blasting, water blasting, grinding, and gas-axing (such as the oxygen-acetylene torches used by ship cutters), extremely toxic mercury vapor is released in high concentrations which will bypass most commercial personal protection equipment. Children are particularly susceptible to the harms of mercury poisoning because their bodies are still developing, meaning children working in shipbreaking yards are at particular risk. There is no known safe level of exposure.
Additional Environmental Impacts
Without the use of dry-docks it is nearly impossible for shipyards to deploy the proper tools and containment measures to safely process toxic ships. In 2010, Calin Georgescu, the then special rapporteur on toxics and human rights, argued that the requirement under the Basel Convention to take all practical steps towards the “environmentally sound management” of hazardous wastes “cannot be achieved when ships are dismantled on tidal beaches without concrete covering or any other containment.”
At time of writing, Bangladesh does not have a toxic waste storage, treatment, and disposal facility for shipbreaking, despite commitments under the 2018 Ship Recycling Act to build one by 2021. Because ships in Bangladesh are broken down directly on the beach, toxic waste is dumped straight on the beach and the sea. Because Bangladesh is situated on a delta, the coasts have some of the largest tidal ranges in the world, meaning some toxic substances are swept out to sea and then back inland up coastal waterways.
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 “actually they are throwing that waste into the sea. That’s why the sea water is getting polluted. And when investigators come to the yard that’s the only time waste is taken to the rooms.”
Pollutants are permanently impacting marine biodiversity and coastal habitats. According to the Marine Institute of the University of Chittagong, the shipbreaking industry has wiped out 21 species of fish and crustacean and endangered 11 other species.
A 2017 study by researchers at Bangladesh’s Jahangirnagar University estimated that there are about 20,000 fishing families living along the Sitakunda coastal strip whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the pollution from shipbreaking. Fishermen explain that not only are the fish they rely on for their livelihood disappearing, but incoming boats regularly tear through their nets which take months to repair, cutting into an important source of income.
Aijaz, 25, said that he used to be a fisherman but started working in shipbreaking because ships kept breaking through his nets. He explained:
When a ship is taken to the yards the propeller tears the nets of the fishermen. But whenever fishermen go to the yard owners asking for compensation for their nets, they scold them and do not give them taka for their losses. 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 fishes in the coastal areas here.
Masum, 44, who started selling fish after he was injured in the shipbreaking yards said “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. The fish are dying. That’s why fishermen have to go into the deep sea to catch fish. Lives of the fishermen are getting risky day by day.”
Nurul, 24, explained that not only do shipyard owners refuse to pay for the fishermen’s losses when ships break through their nets, but they also will threaten and intimidate the fishermen. “Sometimes the yard owners confiscate the nets to prevent fishing. The owners feel it gets in the way because they want to control the beach area. The fishermen can’t say anything because shipyard owners are powerful and fishermen are very poor.”
The shipbreaking industry is also responsible for cutting down coastal mangrove forests, one of Bangladesh’s most important lines of defense against climate change. Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in the world. It is predicted that in the next 30 years more than 10 percent of coastal land will disappear, displacing one in seven people. Mangrove forests serve as an important barrier to erosion, holding land together with their roots as tides rise. However, shipyard owners have illegally cut down swaths of mangroves to make way for incoming ships.
II. Legal Framework for Ship Recycling
There are international and national laws and guidelines for safe and environmentally sound ship recycling. However, these requirements are frequently ignored or circumvented. Without effective enforcement, Bangladeshis will continue to pay the heavy cost in the form of damage to the environment, to health, and to the rights of workers.
International and National Rights Obligations
Right to Safe and Healthy Working Conditions
The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), ratified by Bangladesh, requires all party states to ensure safe and healthy working conditions. The International Labour Organization additionally lays out obligations and standards to protect worker’s rights to occupational health and safety. The two core instruments are the Occupational Safety and Health Convention (C155) and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (C187). In June 2022, ILO delegates voted to add the principle of a safe and healthy working environment to the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, meaning that all ILO Member States are committed to respecting and promoting the fundamental right to a safe and healthy working environment, regardless of whether they have ratified the relevant conventions. Though Bangladesh has not ratified ILO Conventions 155 and 187, it is therefore still obligated to uphold their standards.
Nationally, there are three main pieces of legislation protecting shipbreaking workers’ rights to occupational health and safety: the 2011 Shipbreaking and Recycling Rules (enforced through the 2018 Ship Recycling Act), the 2013 National Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Policy, and the 2006 Labour Act.
The 2011 Shipbreaking and Recycling Rules require that all workers are provided with personal protective equipment including head, face, hand, and foot protection, respiratory protective equipment, hearing protection, protection against radioactive contamination, protection from falls, and appropriate clothing meeting standards set by the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution under the Ministry of Industries. Yards must have systems and procedures in place to document and track all hazardous waste on ships and to adequately respond in case of emergency. The rules also explicitly call for yards to establish an occupational health and safety policy in consultation with workers.
The 2013 OSH Policy applies to all workplaces, formal and informal, including shipbreaking yards, and requires employers to provide training, guidelines, and adequate safety equipment. It also recommends periodic medical examinations of workers to identify potential workplace-related diseases or injuries.
The Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (amended in 2018) states that “no authority shall engage any worker in work without providing him with personal safety equipment,” including safety goggles in conditions where they are at risk of exposure to excessive heat, debris, or light, as is the case for shipbreakers. The law prohibits work requiring people to lift, carry, or move excessive weight that would be likely to cause injury. The law also requires employers to maintain safety records in any facility employing more than 25 workers. If a worker reports an injury, the employer is required within three days of such notice, to “ensure the worker is examined at the expense of the employer by a registered medical practitioner.” In the case of a fatal accident, employers are obligated under the Labour Act to report the accident within seven days to the local Labor Court. The employer is liable to pay compensation if the worker suffers “total or partial disablement” for more than three days. Injuries eligible for compensation include occupational diseases specific to the employment context such as asbestosis and certain cancers in the case of shipbreaking.
Under the Fatal Accidents Act, 1855, in the case that a worker dies in a workplace accident, the court may pay damages to the family “proportioned to the loss resulting from such death.” The Labour Welfare Foundation Act, 2006, set up a workers’ welfare foundation called the Bangladesh Sramik Kalyan Foundation (BSKF). The BSKF’s responsibilities include providing financial assistance to workers who are physically disabled, arranging medical treatment and providing financial assistance to workers in case of work-related injury, and providing aid to the worker’s family in case of death.
Right to Health
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Bangladesh ratified in 1998, specifies that every person has a right “to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” Because states have different levels of resources, international law does not mandate the kind of health care to be provided beyond a certain minimum level. The right to health is considered a right of “progressive realization,” meaning that by becoming party to the ICESCR, a state agrees “to take steps … to the maximum of its available resources” to achieve the full realization of the right to health.
The ICESCR requires that states, in order to realize the right to the highest attainable standard of health, shall take the steps necessary for “the improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene.” The Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) which interprets and monitors states’ compliance with the ICESCR in the General Comment 14 on the Right to Health, has interpreted the ICESCR to include:
… [T] he prevention and reduction of the population’s exposure to harmful substances such as radiation and harmful chemicals or other detrimental environmental conditions that directly or indirectly impact upon human health.
The right to health encompasses the right to healthy natural environments. The CESCR has explained that governments violate the right to the highest attainable standard of health if they fail to regulate the activities of corporations to prevent them from violating the right to health of others.
Both the ICCPR and the ICESCR, along with the relevant International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions, guarantee the right to join trade unions. These, together with the authoritative interpretation of the ILO core conventions overseen by the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA), obligate governments to ensure that employers do not thwart union formation and participation.
ILO Convention No. 87 provides that workers have the right to join organizations “of their choosing without prior authorization” and authorities should not engage in any interference that would restrict this right or impede its enjoyment. ILO convention No. 98 provides that workers shall be protected from anti-union discrimination, in particular acts to “cause the dismissal of or otherwise prejudice a worker by reason of union membership or because of participation in union activities outside working hours or, with the consent of the employer, within working hours.” Bangladesh has ratified ILO conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, and is required to protect the rights contained in them.
Section 195 of the Bangladesh Labor Act (2006, amended 2013) makes it illegal to “dismiss, discharge, remove from employment, or threaten to dismiss, discharge, or remove from employment a worker, or injure or threaten to injure him in respect of his employment by reason that the worker is or proposes to become, or seeks to persuade any other person to become, a member or officer of a trade union.”
Working Hours and the Right to Rest
The ICESCR requires all party states to ensure rest, leisure, and reasonable limitations of working hours. Under the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006, workers should not regularly work more than eight-hour days. Employers are required to allow one hour rest or two half hour intervals in an eight-hour workday. Under the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006, every worker is entitled to sick leave with full wages for 14 days in a calendar year.
Though a living wage is not nominally defined under international law, Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.” The International Labour Organization enshrines this right in Conventions 95 and 131 and includes recommendations on enforcing minimum wages, including by protecting the right to freedom of association.
The ICESCR recognizes the right to a remuneration that provides for “a decent living for themselves and their families” in accordance with other basic rights protected by the covenant.
In 2018 the Ministry of Labor and Employment established minimum wage requirements in the shipbreaking sector under the 2006 Labour Act. Most of the workers interviewed for this report fall under either Grade three (cutters) or four (helpers). According to the requirements, employers must pay those in Grade three 21,250 BDT ($194) per month, including stipends for housing, medical care, and transport. For Grade four, employers must pay 16,000 BDT ($146) per month, including stipends for housing, medical care, and transport. Many Bangladesh shipbreaking companies do not comply with these minimum standards, instead offering contracts that workers sign for a fraction of the wages without any effort at informed consent.
The Bangladesh government has identified shipbreaking as one of 38 most dangerous forms of child labor as part of its 2008 National Elimination of Child Labour Policy. The 2009 High Court 18-point directive bans the employment of children under the age of 16 in shipbreaking yards and the 2011 Shipbreaking and Recycling Rules ban the employment of children. Still, researchers estimate that 13 percent of shipbreaking workers overall are children and that 20 percent of workers during illegal nightshifts are children.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, both ratified by Bangladesh in 1990 and 2001 respectively, require states to ensure companies are prohibited from employing children under 18 in work that is likely to be hazardous or harmful, or to interfere with the child’s education.
The Worst Forms of Child Labor Recommendation provides guidance to countries on determining what types of work constitute harmful or hazardous work. Many of these conditions are present in the shipbreaking industry such as work at dangerous heights or in confined spaces, work with dangerous machinery, equipment, and tools, and the manual handling or transport of heavy loads; unhealthy environment “which may, for example, expose children to hazardous substances, agents, or processes, or to temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations damaging to their health;” and work during night shifts.
International Laws and Regulations on Hazardous Waste and Ship Recycling
While existing international regulations lay out parameters for safe and environmentally sustainable ship recycling practices, they currently fail to address loopholes that prevent effective enforcement.
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (the Basel Convention)
Adopted in 1989 by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), the Basel Convention restricts and regulates the international trade of hazardous waste and requires state parties to “take all practical steps to ensure that hazardous wastes and other wastes are managed in a manner that will protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects which may result from such wastes.”
Under the Basel Convention and the Basel Ban Amendment, the country of the ship’s port where it is declared waste is obligated to ensure that the receiving country has sufficient capacity for environmentally sustainable management of toxic waste. Exporting countries are also obligated under the Basel Convention to obtain prior informed consent from the importing country which includes providing documentation of hazardous materials in the ship. 
In 2002, the Basel Convention Secretariat adopted the Technical Guidelines for the Environmentally Sound Management of the Full and Partial Dismantling of Ships (the Basel Convention Technical Guidelines) to serve as benchmarks for states to meet their obligations under the convention. According to the guidelines, state parties were expected to upgrade existing shipbreaking facilities to meet the standards of the model facility outlined in the technical guidelines within ten years of their adoption (by December 2012).
Our interviews suggest that twenty years since the adoption of the Basel Convention Technical Guidelines, shipyards in Bangladesh have yet to fulfill even the first stage of improvement.
The standards outlined in the Basel Convention Technical Guidelines include:
Within one year of adoption (as of December 2003):
- Requiring inventories, cleaning, and safe removal of hazardous substances before recycling.
- Facilities should provide clean sufficient work areas with clearly demarcated zones for work, provide personnel with adequate protective equipment, and implement training on safe shipbreaking practices according to agreed-upon standards.
Within five years of adoption (as of December 2007):
- Facilities should have implemented basic measures of an Environmental Management System including a waste management plan, a contingency preparedness plan, and a monitoring plan for the safe and environmentally sound management of shipbreaking waste.
Within ten years (as of December 2012):
- Facilities should have full containment measures in place and ships should be deconstructed on impermeable floors (e.g., using a dry dock or pier).
- All asbestos should be removed using a vacuum decontamination unit.
- Incineration or landfills should have adequate environmental protections.
- All facilities should use a functioning wastewater treatment system.
- All facilities should be certified according to generally accepted standards.
The Basel Ban Amendment
In 1995 a group of developing countries created the Basel Ban Amendment, which builds on the Convention and prohibits the export of hazardous wastes from member states of the European Union, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and Liechtenstein to all other countries. The Ban Amendment entered into force on December 5, 2019.
Parties to the Basel Convention and the Ban Amendment include countries with some of the biggest shipping industries. But the Basel Convention has been difficult to enforce because it is only applicable once a ship technically becomes “waste,” at which point the country of the last port from which the ship departed is responsible for enforcing the convention. A ship only becomes waste once it has been made clear there is an intent to dispose of them. Thus, ship owners circumvent the Basel Convention regulations by simply not declaring their intent to dispose of the ship and instead pretending that the ship is heading to a repair yard, for instance, or is being sold under the pretense of further use.
The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, 2009 (Hong Kong Convention)
On June 26, 2023, Bangladesh and Liberia acceded to the International Maritime Organization’s Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, 2009 (the Hong Kong Convention), thus meeting the requirements for the convention to enter into force on June 26, 2025.
The Hong Kong Convention is meant to set minimum standards for sustainable shipbreaking. Parties to the convention are committed “to prevent, reduce, minimize and, to the extent practicable, eliminate accidents, injuries and other adverse effects on human health and the environment caused by Ship Recycling, and enhance life.”  The convention requires ships to carry an inventory of hazardous materials and for ship recycling facilities to be “designed, constructed, and operated in a safe and environmentally sound manner.” 
While shipping companies and shipbreaking yards both 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 the regulation its proponents promise. Moreover, experts have repeatedly raised concerns that the Hong Kong Convention will serve to greenwash the shipbreaking industry, without ensuring much-needed regulation.
More than 100 civil society organizations have said that the Hong Kong Convention does not meet minimum standards for safety and environmental responsibility. In an assessment of the convention, Calin Georgescu, the then special rapporteur on toxics and human rights stated that the Hong Kong Convention
fails to regulate in detail many important aspects of ship recycling activities, such as the adoption of the inventory of hazardous materials, the development of ship-recycling plans, the authorisation of ship-recycling facilities or the elaboration of appropriate procedures to prevent adverse effects to human health and the environment. These and other issues will be addressed only by the nonmandatory guidelines that are currently being developed by the IMO to ensure the effective implementation of the Convention, and which parties are only requested to “take into account.”
The convention does not ban or even discourage the beaching method. It does not require shipowners to pre-clean the ship of hazardous waste before recycling, regardless of whether the ship recycling yards have facilities to manage such waste, and only calls for the cargo residues, fuel, oil, and waste on board to be “minimized.” It fails to ban the movement of all ships containing asbestos, Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), or other hazardous materials to places where such wastes could not be handled in an environmentally sound way.
Many of the important aspects of the ship recycling process are relegated to a series of nonmandatory guidelines which the state parties are only requested to “take into account.” Unlike the EU Commission’s comprehensive assessment protocols that include independent auditing, the Hong Kong Convention makes it easy to approve substandard yards and relegates assessment to local authorities without independent oversight. If there is no objection to a yard’s ship recycling plan within two weeks, the plan “shall be deemed approved.”
The Hong Kong Convention applies to the recycling state and the ship’s flag state, not the beneficial owner. A company seeking to circumvent even the inadequate terms of the Hong Kong Convention need only to change its flag to that of a country that has not signed the convention before being imported for breaking. Since the Hong Kong Convention is also applicable to the recycling state, it puts all the pressure on developing countries that do not have the resources, capacity, or leverage to ensure the ships they are importing are not full of toxic waste. At the same time, the convention does not contain any provisions for funds or alternative financing mechanisms to support the development of adequate facilities for the safe and environmentally sound recycling of ships.
Activists have also argued that the process to develop the Hong Kong Convention privileged industry interests over substantive regulation. Rizwana Hasan, director of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), said of the process: “The clarion calls for substantive change have been rebuffed in every instance. Instead of real change, real responsibility, real action, we have been given an inventory, a plan, and some guidelines.” Calin Georgescu, the then special rapporteur on toxics and human rights expressed concern that
the forum chosen for the development of the Convention and the approach followed by IMO to reach an agreement over the final text have in some cases determined the predominance of economic interests over the overarching objective of protecting human health and the environment against the major hazards posed by the current ways of dismantling ships.
The entry into force of the Hong Kong Convention raises concerns that it will replace the Basel Conventions application to ship recycling. However, experts argue that the Hong Kong Convention fails to provide an equivalent level of control and enforcement to the Basel Convention.
Among other issues, unlike the Basel Convention and the Ban Amendment, the Hong Kong Convention does not outright “prohibit the movement of end-of-life ships containing asbestos, PCBs or other hazardous materials to countries where such wastes could not be handled in an environmentally sound way.”
Second, while the Basel Convention emphasizes the importance of traceability of waste until its final disposal to ensure it is managed in a way that is environmentally sound, the Hong Kong Convention only stipulates that waste be transferred to a facility authorized for its disposal and does not require monitoring of waste dispatched downstream.
Third, under the Hong Kong Convention, ship recycling states are able to receive tacit approval for a ship recycling plan, rather than ensuring the plan for each ship is independently audited, which former special rapporteur on Toxics Calin Georgescu argued fails to satisfy the Basel Convention’s requirement of prior informed consent.
Finally, the Hong Kong Convention only applies to commercial ships and those over 500 GT, whereas the Basel Convention applies to all end-of-life ships. 
Meanwhile, various companies have begun offering shipyard owners “statements of compliance” with the Hong Kong Convention, that serve to greenwash substandard yards. Ship owners can hire these companies, known as “classification societies,” to carry out inspections and provide safety and other certifications required for flag registration. The EU currently recognizes 12 classification societies, allowing them to act on behalf of EU member states. However, yard owners will contract these same classification societies as private consultants to assess and provide statements of compliance with the Hong Kong convention, thus giving the appearance of state compliance when in reality it is a business-to-business transaction. In regards to the classification societies, former special rapporteur on human rights and toxics Baskut Tuncak said: “such private companies do not operate independently at all and should rather be seen as extensions of the shipping industry.”
EU and OECD Regulations
The European Union has comprehensive regulations regarding the disposal of end-of-life ships. However, applying the regulations according to flag states allows EU companies to easily circumvent their requirements.
European Union Waste Shipment Regulation (EU WSR) (EC 1013/2006)
Entered into force in June 2006, the European Union Waste Shipment Regulation implements the Basel Convention as well as the 2001 OECD Control System for waste recovery with the aim of controlling the movement of waste within and from the EU. The EU WSR prohibits the shipment of waste, including end-of-life ships, to non-OECD countries. For shipment to OECD countries, the exporter must go through a set of procedures including prior notification and approval from destination authorities. Enforcement is left to member states, which are required to establish laws regarding the export of waste with penalties that must be “effective, proportionate, and dissuasive.”
Some states have begun incorporating criminal penalties for violating the EU WSR. In March 2022, a Norwegian appeals court upheld a November 2020 decision sentencing the owner of shipping company Eide Group, to six months imprisonment for violating section 79 of Norwegian Pollution Act (which incorporates the EU WSR in Norwegian law, although Norway is not a member state of the EU) and assisting Wirana (a major cash buyer) in attempting to illegally export a ship from Norway to the shipbreaking yards in Gadani, Pakistan. The court additionally ordered Eide Group to pay US$201,523 and Wirana to pay US$705,330.
On November 17, 2021, the European Commission adopted a proposal to revise the EU WSR (and amending Regulations [EU] No 1257/2013 and [EU] No 2020/1056). As part of the EU co-legislative process, the European Parliament adopted its position on January 17, 2023. According to the Legislative Observatory, the Council has not yet reached a General Approach.
The Commission Proposal states, in its preamble 14 that
Regulation (EU) No 1257/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council applies to large commercial ships flying the flag of a Member State of the Union, which were excluded from the scope of application of Regulation (EC) No 1013/2006. However, following the recent international entry into force of the Ban Amendment, it is necessary to ensure that the ships covered by the scope of Regulation (EU) No 1257/2013 which become waste in the Union are made subject to the relevant Union waste shipment rules implementing the Ban Amendment, in order to ensure strict legal compatibility of the Union’s legal regime with international obligations. At the same time, it is also necessary to amend Regulation (EU) No 1257/2013 to clarify that ships falling within the scope of that Regulation and which become waste in the Union shall only be recycled at those facilities included in the European List of ship recycling facilities established under that Regulation, which are located in countries listed in Annex VII to the Basel Convention.
EU Ship Recycling Regulation (EU SRR) EU No 1257/2013
The EU Ship Recycling Regulation, adopted by the European Parliament in November 2013, specifically focuses on the export and management of end-of-life ships, and includes environmental protection and occupational health and safety standards. As of December 31, 2019, all EU-flagged ships were required to be recycled at an EU approved facility. At time of publishing, there are 48 such facilities that are regularly and independently audited for their compliance with standards on environmental protection and worker’s safety. None of these approved facilities are in Bangladesh.
In June 2022, the European Commission launched a consultation process to evaluate the EU SRR in relation to the objectives of the European Green Deal and the circular economy action plan, assess its application and effectiveness, and identify gaps in implementation and enforcement. After a first call for evidence closed, the Commission has opened a public consultation which ended on June 7, 2023 with the perspective to publish a proposal for a revision in the first quarter of 2024 (at the time of publication).
The findings of this report demonstrate that the EU SRR is not being implemented or enforced effectively because it fails to apply to the true beneficial owners of ships. As outlined in the recommendations of this report, the EU SRR should be revised to apply according to the beneficial owner, rather than the flag state of a ship, and should be applied for no less than two years following the sale of a ship.
EU Environmental Crime Directive
On December 15, 2021, the European commission adopted a proposal for a new EU Directive on Environmental Crime under the European Green Deal. If adopted, the directive would require member states to ensure that national laws codifying the EU SRR would have to meet minimum penalties, including prison sentences and fines, and commit adequate resources to ensure effective enforcement. The draft directive explicitly includes illegal ship recycling as a category of criminal offense.
Bangladesh National laws
Bangladesh has laws to protect labor rights including in the shipbreaking yards, but these are not properly enforced.
Shipbreaking Laws and Rulings
As a result of advocacy and impact litigation by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), on March 17, 2009, the High Court of Bangladesh halted the import of ships for recycling until it could be shown that a vessel had
been decontaminated and that the dismantling of the vessel will be conducted under strict conditions following the laws of the land keeping in view the need to have satisfactory provisions for the safety of the workers, safety and integrity of the environment and adequate provisions for the disposal of the waste generated by the dismantling process.
The court additionally issues an 18-point directive to ensure health and safety standards and labor rights protections. These included prohibitions against child labor and night shifts; to ensure workers have adequate protective equipment; to ensure workers are given breaks, have a safe place to rest, and are provided with contracts; and to provide adequate facilities for safe removal of asbestos, PVC, PCB, and heavy metals so that “no workers shall be exposed to these contaminants.” Finally, the directive tasked the Department of Environment and Ministry of Labour with monitoring compliance with these directives and to ensure that “no hazardous substance is released into any river, water body, canal, sea, land or any place other than the waste dumping facilities.”
On December 15, 2010, the court again ordered the closure of 36 shipbreaking yards (nearly all functioning yards at the time) for operating without environmental clearance. On March 7, 2011, shipbreaking was allowed to restart under the condition that yards complied with the 2009 directive.
On October 19, 2011, the court said that yards had failed to comply with the 2009 directive and ordered the Department of Environment to stop issuing certificates until it was clear that proper rules and procedures were in place. In response, the Ministry of Industries published the Shipbreaking and Recycling Rules, 2011 and the Bangladesh Department of Environment adopted the Hazardous Waste and Ship Breaking Hazardous Waste Management Rules, 2011.
The publication of two separate sets of rules by two separate ministries has led to confusion and complications in application of standards. Indeed, in a 2019 ruling in the case of the import of the vessel North Sea Producer, the Bangladesh High Court stated that “a conundrum has arisen” whereby the two ministries have submitted “two separate but competing, if not rival, sets of rules addressing shipbreaking.” Still, both sets of rules require supply of personal protective equipment, removal of hazardous materials before a ship is imported, and provide for compensation and care in case of worker injuries or death.
In 2016, the High Court issued a contempt rule against the authorities and the shipbreaking yard owners, asking the President of the Ship Breakers Association to explain why, seven years later, they still had not implemented the 2009 orders.
In 2018, the Ministry of Industry adopted the Ship Recycling Act. The Ship Recycling Act established the Bangladesh Ship Recycling Board (BSRB), responsible for the “overall supervision of ship recycling activities.” The structure of the board, however, raises serious concerns about its independence, undermining the ability of the BSRB to adequately ensure the protection of workers’ rights and safety. While the board includes representatives of relevant ministries, local authorities, the president of the Association of Ship Recycling Industries, and two representatives of ship recycling yard owners, it does not include those most impacted such as local environmental organizations, labor rights groups, or worker representatives.
The Ship Recycling Act requires regular inspections by an appointee of the Bangladesh Ship Recycling Board of shipbreaking yards to ensure they are following Bangladesh’s 2011 laws on ship recycling. It also committed to creating a toxic waste storage, treatment and disposal facility by 2021 which all shipbreaking yards would be required to use. The Act states that the BSRB is responsible for ensuring all workers are adequately trained and that the government will create a training institute for shipbreaking workers by 2023. Additionally, it requires all yard owners to provide life insurance for all shipbreaking workers and, in the event of a death or serious injury on the job, to compensate the worker and/or their family according to the Bangladesh Labour Act and the 2011 Shipbreaking Rules. Notably, injuries that should be compensated according to the 2011 shipbreaking rules include longer term work-related illness, including asbestosis and cancer.
In July 2019 BELA submitted a writ petition to the High Court claiming that since the 2009 judgement “at least 201 incidents have occurred in 85 yards claiming no less than 193 lives and injuring at least 86 labourers.” BELA is arguing that these casualties could have been avoided had the 2009 orders been implemented. In addition to the deaths, injuries include loss of limbs and a separate petition specifically on cases of asbestos poisoning. The petition has called for the suspension of all work and import of ships to shipyards associated with these accidents—at least 40 yards—until it can be independently proven that the shipyards are meeting international standards under the Basel Convention. Judgement is still pending.
In November 2019, the High Court issued a judgment on a 2017 case filed by BELA regarding a ship called the North Sea Producer that was illegally imported in 2016. Though the ship was radioactive and full of asbestos, it was imported with a certificate stating that it was free of hazardous materials, akin to the recent certificates documented in this report. The High Court ruled that the import of the ship was illegal and directed the Department of Environment to ensure that ships were not imported without verified certificates. The court directed the government to monitor and record the activities of cash buyers and the agents certifying the ships to stop importing scrapped ships sailing under grey and blacklisted flags. Since this order, however, shipyards have imported at over 100 ships under gray or black-listed flags.
To be imported for breaking, a ship must be issued a “No Objection Certificate” from the BSRB based on a review of the ship’s hazardous waste inventory by the customs department. Additionally, the Department of Environment must issue an environmental clearance certificate and the Department of Explosives must issue “gas free for man entry,” and a “gas free for hot work” certificates.
A ship recycling facility can only be approved if it demonstrates that it has a license for storage of flammable liquids, has adequate storage facilities for toxic waste and, specifically, a plan for safely handling, treating, and disposing of asbestos. Waste cannot be thrown into the sea or on the seashore and “shall be removed carefully and sent immediately to the areas outside the beach for safe treatment and disposal.” The Department of Environment is responsible for carrying out regular monitoring of air, soil, and water quality and ship recyclers will lose their authorization if it is found that they are not disposing of waste in an “environmentally sound manner.”
Bangladesh’s Environmental Conservation Act, 1995, prohibits all industrial units from operating without an environmental clearance certificate. The Department of Environment’s director general, or their delegate, has wide powers to enter premises, search buildings, collect air, water, and soil samples, and seek the assistance of law enforcement forces or utility providers to ensure compliance with his or her orders. It additionally empowers the Director General of the Department of Environment to order a person or group to pay compensation if they are found to have caused direct or indirect “injury to the ecosystem.” Bangladesh’s Labour Act (2006) requires that all establishments have effective measures for the disposal of wastes and effluents generated by manufacturing processes.
Responsibilities of Businesses Involved in Shipbreaking in Bangladesh
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) set out the responsibilities of companies to prevent human rights abuses. Regardless of their size or where they are based, businesses must “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur.” They should also “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.” Additionally, “where business enterprises identify that they have caused or contributed to adverse impacts, they should provide for or cooperate in their remediation through legitimate processes.” The UN Guiding Principles reaffirm that states have a duty to protect their citizens from human rights abuses committed by business. This requires them to take “appropriate steps to prevent, investigate, punish and redress such abuse through effective policies, legislation, regulations and adjudication.”
Inspired by the UNGP and the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, the ongoing debate at EU level on the proposal for a Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) foresees that EU companies under its scope will be subjected to mandatory obligations to prevent, mitigate, cease, and remediate human rights violations and environmental damages linked to their own operation and those of their value chains. Once the final text is approved, the CSDDD could therefore include specific liabilities over companies to ensure that their business relationship at all levels of the value chain do not cause or contribute to abuses. As such, it may apply also to ship owners and other companies involved in shipbreaking, including cash buyers and certification schemes.
III. How Shipping Companies Circumvent Laws and Regulations on Sustainable Ship Recycling
The evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch shows that many companies and countries involved in the shipping industry regularly ignore and circumvent international laws and regulations that are in place to ensure that ships are recycled sustainably and safely. These regulations fail for three main reasons:
First, because shipping companies can register their ships under a different flag from that of the country where they are based, they can easily circumvent state regulations. The EU Ship Recycling Regulation, for instance, only applies to those ships sailing under an EU flag. Therefore, EU shipping companies simply register under a non-EU flag when selling the ship for scrapping.
As of December 31, 2018, all EU-flagged ships were required to be recycled at an EU-approved facility and yet, according to publicly available shipping data, less than half of the 475 EU ships that were decommissioned since January 2019 were recycled in approved yards. The majority were beached in South Asia, where none of the yards have met the safety and environmental standards set by the EU. None of the EU ships scrapped in Bangladesh entered under an EU flag.
Similarly, the Hong Kong Convention, which will enter into force in June 2025, applies according to flag state. Meaning, shipping companies seeking to avoid its application can simply swap flags to a non-signatory state.
Second, an opaque industry of “cash buyers,” essentially scrap dealers who purchase end-of-life ships from shipping companies and sell them to shipbreaking yards in South Asia, enables shipping companies to evade responsibility for where their ships are scrapped. Cash buyers frequently register end-of-life ships under shell companies, making it additionally difficult to determine beneficial ownership.
Inspection reports and required documentation are often outsourced to cash buyers and other middlemen. EU approved yards require that a ship’s Inventory of Hazardous Materials is created in accordance with international regulations. But Bangladesh authorities are ill-equipped to conduct proper inspections of end-of-life ships before approving them for import, so they will often rely on the seller or another offshore third party. This means waste declarations for ships imported to Bangladesh are often completed without any oversight, transparency, or clear accreditation, with potentially fatal consequences.
Third, without a transparent and regulated system for enforcement of the terms of the Basel Convention, countries will frequently ignore requirements without consequence. Companies easily circumvent the Basel Ban amendment and EU Waste Shipment Regulation, which ban the export of end-of-life ships from OECD to non-OECD countries, by simply ensuring that the ship has left OECD waters before it is declared waste or by providing fraudulent information indicating that the ship is being sold for further operational use or repair.
The Case of the Virgin Star
On August 31, 2019, workers at Ziri Subedar Shipbreaking yard in Bangladesh were tearing apart the Virgin Star, a containership previously owned by Greek shipping company Cyprus Sea Lines SA, when a heavy cable fell from the ship crushing the workers below. Aminul Islam, 35, and Tushar Chakma, 27, died on the spot and 13 others were injured.
Aminul’s mother, Delawar, said the shipyard was responsible for her son’s death because “there was no safety for the workers. It was like a murder.” But she told Human Rights Watch that she also believes Cyprus Sea Lines SA, is responsible as the beneficial owner of the ship.
The Virgin Star arrived in Bangladesh on February 4, 2019. However, its final voyage began a few months earlier when it collided with another ship leading to an oil spill off the coast of Corsica on October 7, 2018. The EU Waste Shipment Regulation made it illegal for Cyprus Sea Lines SA to send the Virgin Star (then called CSL Virginia) straight to scrapyards in Bangladesh from French waters. It remained anchored in French waters for about three weeks before it was reportedly approved to sail to Romania for repairs. However, the CSL Virginia never made it to Romania. Instead, it stopped in Turkey for a little over a month where its name was changed to the Virgin Star, its flag from Cyprus to Liberia, and was sold for about $10.3M on December 21, 2018 for scrap in Bangladesh.
Flags of Convenience
Ships are subject to the laws of their flag state. However, ships are not required to maintain the same flag throughout their operational life, nor is it required that the flag match the country of the ship’s beneficial owner. Because different countries have different maritime laws and regulations, shipping companies will frequently swap flags to avoid regulatory burdens. This is referred to as “flag hopping.” Over 70 percent of the world fleet is flagged by countries other than that of the vessel’s owner. While Greece, China, Japan, Germany, and Norway are the top ship owning countries, together Panama, Liberia, the Marshall Islands, and Hong Kong flag more than half of the world’s fleet.
The EU Ship Recycling Regulation is only applicable to ships sailing EU flags. Therefore, EU shipping companies planning to dump their ships at a facility that has not been vetted and approved by the EU commission for safety and sustainability, will simply ensure that the vessel is not sailing under an EU flag when it is sent for disposal.
Many ships owned by EU companies never sail under an EU flag during their operational life, but this is especially true at the end of a ship’s life. In 2020, while 40 percent of the world’s fleet was owned by European companies, only 5 percent had an EU flag when they were sold for scrap. None of the 93 EU ships scrapped in Bangladesh since 2019 entered under an EU flag.
Flag registries that are “open,” meaning they will provide flags to foreign ships, are described as “flags of convenience.” These flags are usually provided by countries with lower regulatory obligations and enforcement. These governments frequently privatize the function of registering and regulating ships operating under their flag. Therefore, despite exercising a public function, open flag registries are often private companies (or a mix of privately-owned companies and government entities), headquartered outside of the flag state itself. In fact, two of the three largest shipping registries—Liberia and the Marshall Islands—are US-owned companies headquartered in Virginia. The Panama Ship Registry—the world’s largest flag registry—was initially headquartered in New York until it shifted headquarters to Panama City but maintains offices in Houston and Miami.  Popular flags of convenience for end-of-life ships are also based in Europe. For instance, the Palau flag registry is headquartered in Greece while the St. Kitts and Nevis registry is headquartered in the UK.
Flags of convenience are not only used to circumvent ship recycling regulations but are also used to circumvent labor laws at sea including ensuring fair wages, adequate food and water, and reasonable working hours. According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), flag of convenience registries “make it more difficult for unions, industry stakeholders and the public to hold ship owners to account.” For this reason, the ITF has called for the flags of convenience system to be abolished.
Flag Registry influence at the International Maritime Organization
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the UN entity responsible for regulating and enforcing international shipping standards including environmental and labor protections and has the authority to enforce these requirements. However, the structure of the IMO limits its ability to act as an effective regulator. Decisions at the IMO enter into force when a certain number of states that represent a certain percentage of the world fleet have ratified. Since flags of convenience are up for sale, these countries flag more ships and thus have more decision-making power at the IMO. This means that those countries (and in many cases, companies) with the greatest incentive to keep regulatory burdens low are also those with the most power.
This also means that the shipping industry can influence important regulations regarding labor, health, human rights, and environmental protections by essentially buying flags—and thus influence—at the IMO. For example, the website of the Liberian shipping registry, a privately owned company, boasts: “Liberia has taken a leading role in global shipping at a very early stage and continues to be a voice for shipowners at IMO.” A 2018 study by Transparency International found that member states with open flag registries have uneven influence on decisions at the IMO and that the shipping industry itself had “disproportionate influence.” It also found that activities of the IMO lacked transparency and there was a lack of delegate accountability.
In a July 14, 2023 report on his visit to the IMO, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, Marcos Orellana, noted that “While IMO is a regulatory organization, it has not always exhibited the requisite transparency and participation called for by a human rights-based approach.”
When Human Rights Watch asked the IMO for details on the organization’s access information policy, an IMO official replied: “Concerning access to information, all IMO documents (e.g., documents submitted to IMO bodies, reports, circulars, amendments to mandatory instruments) are available via the online IMO documents portal upon registration, with registration being open to the public.” While this is a positive step towards improving transparency, the documents available to the public are limited. For instance, the public has no access to IMO audit reports on member states’ implementation and enforcement of applicable IMO instruments—an important tool for monitoring adherence to regulations. Moreover, as Special Rapporteur Marcos Orellana noted, the IMO secretariat maintains “wide discretion,” on what documents are shared with the public, potentially inhibiting public access.
Serving as a middleman, cash buyers enable ship owners to avoid selling end-of-life ships directly to a Bangladeshi shipbreaking yard. The cash buyer often will register the ship under new ownership (frequently a P.O. box corporation created for the purposes of disposing the vessel) and works with a flag registry to change the ship’s flag. With a new flag, a new name, and a new owner, the cash buyer then sells the ship to the highest shipyard bidder.
Three cash-buyers control about two-thirds of the global market: Global Marketing Systems (GMS), Wirana, and Best Oasis. The largest of the three, GMS, incorporated in the US and headquartered in Dubai, boasts having negotiated nearly half of the total mass of ships dismantled in South Asia in 2020.
Ships imported to Bangladesh for scrap are rarely registered under their beneficial owner. In many cases, the cash buyer will use a shell company as the new registered owner of the ship during its sale to scrapyards in Bangladesh. Sometimes these companies are set up by the cash buyer themselves or offered by flag registries which, in addition to providing flag registration, also advertise the ability to set up a company within 24 hours.
Shell companies make it easy for cash buyers to hide their involvement in shipbreaking. In the case of the North Sea Producer described below, public documents showed that the ship was sold to a company called Conquistador Shipping Corporation. It wasn’t until 2019 that an investigative expose revealed leaked documents linking Conquistador Shipping Corporation to GMS. In its communication to Human Rights Watch on July 3, 2023, Novonor confirmed that the contractual buyer for the North Sea Producer was GMS. In a second response to Human Rights Watch on August 22, 2023, Novonor additionally confirmed that GMS acted as the guarantor for the P.O. box company, Conquistador Shipping Corporation as the buyer.
The use of cash buyers, and cash buyer’s reliance on shell companies, has the effect of shielding ships’ original owners and operators from accountability for deaths and injuries taking apart their ships. In 2019, the Bangladesh High Court directed the government to monitor and record the activities of cash buyers, but the use of shell companies make it extremely difficult to trace the actual owner of a ship before it is sold for scrap. Additionally, workers explained that many of the ships imported to the yards have the name either painted over or removed as soon as it enters the yard.
Virtually every ship that is broken on Bangladesh’s shores was sold to the shipbreaking yard through a cash buyer. By contrast, for EU-approved yards, the involvement of cash buyers is not considered a risk worth taking. “We never use cash buyers,” an industrial engineer managing recycling at an EU-approved yard explained, “we only work straight with the owner. It’s always clear who is offering, buying, recycling.”
By selling through a cash buyer shipping companies essentially forgo oversight over where and how a ship will be scrapped.
The FPSO North Sea Producer Case
The landmark case of the FPSO North Sea Producer illustrates the risks of selling end-of-life ships through cash buyers, both for shipping companies and the workers and communities where the ship is dismantled. The North Sea Producer had for 17 years been used as a Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO) ship to process oil from the UK continental shelf of the North Sea. During that time the North Sea Producer was owned by the North Sea Production Company Limited (NSPCL), a joint venture between the Danish shipping company A.P. Moeller Maersk and Brazilian construction company Odebrecht (now Ocyan).
After the North Sea Producer was decommissioned in August 2015, it sat in UK waters for about a year before Maersk and Odebrecht sold the ship in April 2016 to the world’s largest cash buyer, GMS. Maersk stated that upon the ship’s contract termination, “the North Sea Producer was sold and transferred to a buyer in April 2016 on an ‘as is, where is’ basis, whereby the buyer took over operational and legal responsibility for the unit,” essentially divesting itself of legal responsibility for where the ship would be scrapped. According to Novonor (the parent company of Odebrecht), the NSPCL had “put in place contractual mechanisms that recognized the actual sale process of the FPSO for re-deployment and not for scrapping.” In other words, the ship was sold on the premise that it would be operated for further use, not scrapped, thus allowing the ship to leave UK waters without triggering the EU Waste Shipment Regulation or Basel Ban Amendment which would prohibit the ship from leaving OECD waters for scrap in a non-OECD country.
However, rather than being sold for further use, the North Sea Producer went straight to Bangladesh that same month where it was beached in Janata Steel Shipbreaking yard.
Local Bangladeshi NGOs, in particular the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers’ Association, pushed Bangladesh’s Department of Environment to investigate whether the ship was hazardous. In August 2017, the Bangladesh High Court issued an injunction to stop the ongoing breaking of the ship after investigators found that radiation levels coming from the ship were dangerously high.
Both Maersk and Novonor stated that GMS had been contractually obligated to ensure that the ship would be recycled in a yard that met international environmental standards, but that GMS violated this agreement. According to Novonor:
the Buyer had environmental obligations to cater for the eventual end of life of the FPSO prior to and after the sale, as contained in the sale agreement. Despite its clear obligations not to do so, unknown to the Seller the Buyer facilitated the disposal of the FPSO to a facility in Bangladesh that did not comply with the requirements of the sale contract for Green Scrapping. NSPCL tried, through its partner, the Maersk Company and the eminent legal advisers Reed Smith of London, UK, to vigorously prevent its beaching and dismantling and was thwarted at every attempt to prevent same, by the Buyer.
Maersk said that it was “very, very sorry” that the North Sea Producer ended up in Bangladesh and has since stopped selling ships to be recycled in Bangladesh.
In a letter to Human Rights Watch on July 3, 2023, Novonor said:
We were utterly dismayed and genuinely sorry with what transpired from the scrapping, in Bangladesh, by the buyer of the North Sea Producer FPSO, Global Marketing Systems JLT (“GMS” or “Buyer”), as a consequence of the Buyer totally disregarding certain and specific obligations in the sale agreement with NSPCL. For the avoidance of doubt, it is absolutely unacceptable to Novonor that GMS totally ignored the contractual provisions after the FPSO left UK waters...
GMS has not responded to a right of reply letter sent by Human Rights Watch on May 8, 2023.
Shipping companies, as in the FPSO North Sea Producer case, frequently blame cash buyers for their decision to recycle a ship at an unsustainable or unsafe shipyard. However, in response to a letter from Human Rights Watch, Best Oasis, a major cash buyer, said that shipping companies play a significant role in determining where ships are dismantled.
In response to a letter from Human Rights Watch, a representative of a cash buyer stated that: “The decision as to sending end-of-life ships to ship recycling yards in a particular country vest solely with the owners.” He explained that shipping companies frequently choose yards in South Asia because they have “relatively lower labour charges as compared to other countries” and that in some cases this comes at the sacrifice of safety standards. He further stated that “It has been observed in several cases that the largest of the companies often opt for cheaper ship recycling yards which have a minor difference in pricing thereby detrimentally affecting the safety.”
Over the last few years Bangladeshi workers and activists have brought cases against international shipping companies for injuries and deaths that occurred when breaking apart foreign end-of-life ships, that had been sold through cash buyers. These cases challenge the claim that selling a ship through a cash buyer to an unsafe yard shields the original ship owner from liability. Given that the three main cash buyers sell ships almost exclusively to yards in South Asia where labor rights abuses and environmental harms have been well-documented, it is reasonable to expect that shipping companies that sell end-of-life ships through cash buyers know that their ship will likely be scrapped under abusive and environmentally damaging conditions.
Maran Ltd. Case
In May 2021, Hamida Begum, won the right to sue British shipping agency Maran Ltd. for negligence in the courts of England and Wales over the death of her husband, Khalil Mollah, who fell to his death taking apart a Maran Ltd. oil tanker called EKTA while it was being taken apart in Chittagong. Maran Ltd. argued that it was not liable for Mollah’s death because they had sold the ship to a cash buyer and thus, they were not responsible for where it was sold for demolition, and because the injury was caused by the conduct of a third party (the shipyard).
But Begum’s lawyers claim that Maran Ltd. would have known the ship was likely destined for an unsafe facility when they sold it to the cash buyer and should be held liable. Trial and appeal courts both denied Maran Ltd’s argument that the case should not go to trial. In the appeal court judgement allowing the case to go forward, all three judges agreed that that Maran Ltd.’s decision to sell the ship through a cash buyer did not necessarily shield it from liability. In his legal opinion, Lord Justice Males stated that:
[I]t is the Claimant's case, supported by evidence, that the interposition of such an intermediate cash buyer was essentially a device for shipowners to seek to distance themselves from an unsavoury sector of the shipping industry… In those circumstances there is at least an arguable case that the shipowner knew and intended that the ship would go to Bangladesh to be broken up, and that it exercised the same control over the ship's destination as if it had been sold directly to the shipbreaker in Chattogram.
Additionally, in response to Maran Ltd’s argument that “there was no relationship of ‘proximity’ between the shipowner and the Claimant's husband,” which would be required to establish duty of care, Lord Justice Males stated that:
In the present case the Defendant did not have control over working conditions in Chattogram, but it did have control over whether the Claimant's husband would be exposed to the risk of death or serious injury from working on its ship. That was a foreseeable risk which the Defendant created by its decision to send the vessel to be broken up in Bangladesh and is arguably sufficient, in my judgment, to create the necessary relationship of proximity.
The judgment sets important precedent in the development of case law on third party negligence, essentially demonstrating that adding cash buyers as an intermediary does not necessarily absolve shipping companies of their obligations to ensure their ships are disposed of in safe and sustainable facilities.
Exporting Ports Failures
Under the Basel Convention, the country of the ship’s last port where it is declared waste is obligated to ensure that the receiving country has sufficient capacity for environmentally sustainable management of toxic waste. Exporting countries are also obligated under the Basel Convention to obtain prior informed consent from the importing country which includes providing documentation of hazardous materials in the ship.
However, exporting ports frequently fail to meet these obligations. Moreover, there are no yards in Bangladesh with sufficient capacity according to the Basel Convention’s Ship Recycling Guidelines and thus the export of any toxic ship to Bangladesh would be a violation of this requirement.
Falsified Ship Inventories
The EU Ship Recycling Regulation, Bangladesh Ship Recycling Act, and the Basel Convention all require ships to maintain an inventory of hazardous materials. According to Bangladesh’s Shipbreaking and Recycling Rules, to be imported for breaking, a ship must be issued a “No Objection Certificate” from the BSRB based on a review of the ship’s hazardous waste inventory by the customs department. Additionally, the Department of Environment must issue an environmental clearance certificate and the Department of Explosives must issue “gas free for man entry,” and a “gas free for hot work” certificates. The 2009 High Court Directive forbids the import of any ship “which is not fully compliant with the conditions contained in the Environmental Clearance Certificate and that does not have adequate disposal facilities for hazardous wastes.”
However, many of the inventories for ships entering Bangladesh are simply drafted by a cash buyer or another offshore third party without any oversight, transparency, or clear accreditation.
Human Rights Watch viewed 21 hazardous waste certificates for ships entering Bangladesh for breaking, all of which were prepared by third party companies. In some cases, the certificate was provided by a company linked to a known cash buyer.
In the case of the Virgin Star, Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of the ship’s hazardous materials certificate, which was prepared on January 7, 2019 by Maximus Shipping Ltd., a company with a listed P.O. Box address in Nevis that has been associated with a major cash buyer. The certification stated that “the ship is safe without any non-hazardous [sic] material.”
The language used to greenlight the Virgin Star for import is commonly used on pro-forma hazardous waste certificates for ships being imported to Bangladesh, suggesting that the parties drafting the certificates were not conducting adequate inspections or investigation of the actual materials onboard the ships. All of the certificates viewed by Human Rights Watch used similar language, in many cases verbatim.
By contrast, EU-approved yards require that a ship’s inventory is created in accordance with international regulations, including the IOM’s 2015 Guidelines for the Development of the IHM. The IMO guidelines include a thorough inspection with sampling and testing, listing the quantity and location of every material. According to the procedure laid out by the IMO, if it is not possible to visibly assess the presence of hazardous materials, the equipment or area of the ship must be classified as “potentially containing hazardous materials.”
Asbestos is one of the most common toxic materials in ships. However, most of the certificates viewed by Human Rights Watch indicated that the presence of asbestos on the ship was “nil” or “minimal.” Ship recycling experts explained that it would be impossible to make this determination without tests and sampling that Bangladesh does not have the capacity to perform. As one Bangladeshi activist explained, “They [the Department of Environment] don’t have that many resources and technical capacity to assess. The cash buyer just gives them a toxic free certificate.” On average, merchant ships contain about 20 tons of asbestos. A shipbreaking expert from an EU-approved yard questioned the probability that the ships entering Bangladesh could truly be free of asbestos said, “There are always hazardous materials. Once in 5 years that we have a ship without asbestos. An asbestos-free ship I would really doubt.”
Falsified hazardous waste certificates are frequently used to greenlight toxic waste into Bangladesh, where there are no adequate facilities and downstream waste management systems.
In the North Sea Producer case, documented above, the Bangladesh Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that the documents used to import the North Sea Producer were “superficially prepared” or “fabricated” and that hazardous materials on the ship had been “deliberately concealed or left vague.” Similar to the certificates reviewed by Human Rights Watch, the certificate used to import the North Sea Producer stated that there were no hazardous materials onboard, although it was found to be full of radioactive waste and 500kg of material containing asbestos.
IV. A Way Forward
The number of ships that will be phased out and sent for recycling is projected to double by 2028 and nearly quadruple by 2033. Governments and financial institutions should implement policies now to ensure these ships are recycled off the beach, in safe and environmentally sustainable conditions. A combination of legislation and financial incentives could help to incentivize against the use of flags of convenience and cash buyers, and move towards a more transparent, accountable ship recycling industry.
In response to increased scrutiny over the conditions of the yards in Bangladesh, some shipping companies have in recent years shifted the disposal of their ships to the yards in India. However, the yards in India also do their primary cutting in the intertidal zone and lack adequate safety and protection measures. While at least six Indian yards have been inspected by the EU Commission, none of them have been approved as of July 2023, mostly due to gaps in environmental and health protections.
Instead of investing time and resources in defending unsafe practices, companies should invest in proven methods, and they should stop insisting that beaching is safe. In order to ensure global capacity to sustainably recycle the massive influx in end-of-life ships over the next decade, shipping companies should invest in building dry-dock facilities that fully protect workers’ rights and the environment as well as the downstream management of waste.
Strengthening EU Regulations
In 2023/24, the European Commission is assessing the EU Ship Recycling Regulation (SRR) and will consider whether and how to reform the regulation. The Commission should eliminate existing loopholes by making the regulation applicable to the beneficial owner of ships, not the flag state. If the ship is sold, the regulation should remain applicable to the previous owner for no less than two years from the date of sale, thus discouraging the use of cash buyers to avoid liability. The revised SRR should refer to the due diligence obligations to be agreed upon in the frame of the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive.
The EU commission should consider creating a ship recycling license as described in the EU Ship Recycling Regulation preamble. A ship recycling license would require any ship that trades in EU waters to pay a fee towards a recycling license, accumulating capital over time. The total will then only be paid back to the last owner of the vessel if the ship is recycled at a shipbreaking yard on the list of EU-approved facilities.
The European Commission should update the 2004 Community Guidelines on State Aid to Maritime Transport to include a tonnage tax subsidy conditioned on recycling of ships in an EU-approved yard.
Creating Financial Incentive
Financial institutions play an important role in incentivizing safe and sustainable ship recycling practices. Banks should adopt explicit policies not to finance loans to shipbreaking yards that do not adequately protect their workers’ rights to life and health, including those that use the ‘beaching’ method of shipbreaking. ING, for instance refuses to finance shipbreaking yards or cash buyers as a matter of policy.
In previous years, Norwegian pension funds, the NGPF and KLP, have excluded certain shipping companies on the basis of their disposal of ships in yards that use the beaching method, particularly in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The threat of divestment may have contributed to other shipping companies increasing scrutiny of where their ships end up. In 2018, KLP’s chief adviser, Aslak Skancke, said that during its investigation the fund contacted several firms in its portfolio “and when we made them aware of the possibility of exclusion from the fund, they ... decided to change their policy.”
The Responsible Ship Recycling Standards
Some shipping companies and financial institutions have taken steps to commit to transparency and incentivize safer and more sustainable shipbreaking practices. In 2017, three major Dutch banks— ABN AMRO Bank N.V., ING Group, and NIBC Bank— introduced the Responsible Ship Recycling Standards (RSRS), a set of voluntary principles for financial institutions invested in the shipping industry based on international standards including the EU Ship Recycling Regulation. Since their introduction, 10 other banks joined the RSRS, representing some of the major European financers of the shipping industry.
The RSRS is an important step towards responsible investing in the ship recycling sector. Among other things, the RSRS commits the banks to “not be directly involved in financing of unsustainable recycling facilities,” nor in the “financing of purchasers of ships intended for unsustainable ship recycling,” such as cash buyers. Additionally, banks that have joined the RSRS agree that “on a best effort basis,” they will ensure that they only finance ships that carry an Inventory of Hazardous Material throughout the entire loan period and that they will require clients to recycle ships in accordance with relevant international law and the EU SRR.
Members of the RSRS also commit to holding their shipping and offshore clients to specific expectations, including to develop a responsible ship recycling policy; to ensure all vessels prepare and maintain an inventory of hazardous materials; to undertake due diligence in selection and ongoing inspection of ship recycling yards; and to publicly disclose where their ships are sent for recycling. The RSRS provides suggested language for loan agreements, recognizing that the agreement “provides an opportunity to require a client to meet the relevant Ship recycling standards.”
The Ship Recycling Transparency Initiative (SRTI)
In 2018, the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, set up in collaboration between a group of non-profit organizations as well as shipping companies, launched the Ship Recycling Transparency Initiative (SRTI). Membership in the SRTI requires ship owners to publicly disclose their ship recycling practices and related policies. 14 shipping companies had joined the SRTI as of August 2023.
The initiative depends on stakeholders, like the members of the RSRS, to increasingly demand transparency on sustainable ship recycling practices. It believes that public disclosure through the SRTI will incentivize good practices by shipping companies, which in turn will be “rewarded through the market.”
The SRTI is a positive first step towards transparency and opens shipping companies to public scrutiny of their ship recycling policies. However, the SRTI may promise more than it delivers. While the SRTI says that shipowners are sharing information on their “policies, practices, and progress,” in reality, the disclosure data is primarily general information on policy and does not include, for example, how many ships were sold for recycling in a given year and to which yards as well as what hazardous materials are onboard.
Without requiring commitments to safe and sustainable practices as a condition of membership, the SRTI could serve simply as a whitewashing exercise, offering the appearance of engagement in responsible shipbreaking practices without real action.
The SRTI should adopt public commitments as a requirement of membership, including not to sell ships to cash buyers and to ensure ships are not sold to yards that practice ‘beaching.’ It should also include public reports on annual sales of ships for recycling in its data disclosures, including a list of specific ships and the conditions of the specific facilities where they are recycled.
The Government of Bangladesh:
- Enforce the 2009 High Court orders which halted the import of ships for recycling until there were “satisfactory provisions for the safety of the workers.” Properly enforce the High Court’s 18-point directive that required rigorous health and safety standards and labor rights protections.
- Immediately shut down any shipbreaking yards employing children.
- Immediately shut down any yards found to be holding night operations or or where there are other serious violations of workers’ rights.
- Set a timebound directive to yards to move all ship recycling operations off the beach and to install proper industrial platforms in accordance with the Basel Convention Technical Guidelines on Ship Recycling.
- Employ occupational health and safety measures in line with ILO Conventions 155 on Occupational Health and Safety, 162 on Asbestos, and 148 on Working Environment to ensure workers’ protection from exposure to toxic substances. Ratify the above ILO conventions.
- Invite the special rapporteur on toxics and human rights to visit Bangladesh, and Chittagong specifically.
- Establish consistent and transparent monitoring and reporting on occupational diseases related to shipbreaking including cancer and asbestosis.
- Ensure workers are educated and informed on exposure to toxic materials in shipbreaking and the potential health consequences.
- Adequately and speedily compensate and rehabilitate all workers who have been injured or, in the case of death, their families, as provided under the Labour Act, 2006, and the Shipbreaking and Recycling Rules, 2011.
- Establish an impartial court-appointed committee to submit a report to the court detailing the compliance of yards according to the Labour Act, 2006, the Shipbreaking and Recycling Rules, 2011, and the Bangladesh Ship Reprocessing Act, 2018. The committee should submit a comprehensive report describing all measures taken by the yards for treatment, compensation, and rehabilitation of workers injured or killed while working in the shipbreaking yards.
- Amend the structure of the Bangladesh Ship Recycling Board (BSRB) to include civil society representatives including local environmental protection groups, labor rights groups, older people’s associations, organizations of persons with disabilities, and shipbreaking workers. Ensure that these representatives have equal voting power in balance with other representatives.
- Require all shipbreaking yards to use clear contracts when hiring workers, routinely audit all shipbreaking facilities and suspend operations of those found to be hiring workers without a contract or otherwise violating labor rights.
- Ensure all workers are paid according to the minimum wage set out in 2018 by the Ministry of Labor and Employment.
- Enforce Section 195 of the Bangladesh Labor Act 2006 (amended 2018) which makes it illegal to “dismiss, discharge, remove from employment a worker, or injure or threaten to injure him in respect of his employment by reason that the worker is or proposes to become, or seeks to persuade any other person to become, a member or officer of a trade union.”
- As set out in the Bangladesh Ship Reprocessing Act, 2018, build a functioning hazardous waste storage, treatment, and disposal facility for shipbreaking that meets international standards for the management of toxic waste and ensure compliance.
- Instruct the Department of Environment to carry out regular and unannounced monitoring of air, soil, and water quality around shipbreaking yards. The Department of Environment should publicly report findings and exercise its authority to revoke authorization from any yard that is not meeting international standards for the environmentally sound management of hazardous waste.
- Call on the director general of the Department of Environment to exercise their authority under the Environmental Conservation Act to order ship recycling yard owners to pay compensation if they are found to have caused direct or indirect “injury to the ecosystem.”
- Follow the Bangladesh High Court directive to stop importing scrapped ships sailing under flags that have been gray or blacklisted by port state controls.
The European Commission:
- In the review being undertaken in 2023/24, amend the EU Ship Recycling Regulation (EU SRR) to apply to the ship’s beneficial owner, not the flag state. If the ship is sold, the EU SRR should remain applicable to the previous owner for no less than two years from the date of sale.
- Create a transparency register of ship ownership, requiring shipping companies to publicly disclose beneficial ownership, including cash buyers.
- Create a “return scheme” for ships as described in the EU Ship Recycling Regulation preamble. The return scheme would require any ship that trades in the EU to pay a fee towards a recycling license, accumulating capital over time. The total will then only be paid back to the last owner of the vessel if the ship is recycled at a ship recycling yard on the list of EU-approved facilities.
- Require all shipping companies conducting operations in the EU to implement a risk-based approach due diligence policy on their whole value-chain in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), recognizing shipbreaking as a high-risk business operation, and to publicly report all sales, including to cash buyers, to ensure the traceability of the ship’s beneficial ownership over its lifetime.
- Ensure that the proposed EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) covers the full value chain, including the use, disposal, and recycling of goods.
- Update the 2004 Community Guidelines on State Aid to Maritime Transport to include a tonnage tax subsidy conditioned on recycling of ships in a yard that meets international standards.
The International Maritime Organization:
- Work closely with the UN Divisions for Oceans and the Law of the Sea to determine restrictions and public reporting requirements to ensure that a ship’s “genuine link” to its flag is meaningful. Sanction flag states each time they are used by cash buyers at end-of-life when a ship is sent to a yard that uses beaching and occupational health and safety standards are not met.
- Require all ships that are dismantled to include a list of hazardous materials according to the IMO standards. Regularly monitor certification procedures in major shipbreaking destinations and penalize those who fail to comply.
- In line with the recommendations laid out by the special rapporteur on toxics, Marcos Orellana, following his visit to the IMO, establish a dedicated stream of work on human rights, including a dedicated human rights office within IMO and a human rights ombudsperson or special adviser to the Secretary-General.
- Provide full public access to audit reports on member states’ implementation and enforcement of the applicable IMO instruments.
- Improve transparency by clarifying and minimizing circumstances under which media can be excluded from IMO proceedings.
- In line with the UNGP and with the upcoming CSDDD, adopt formal and explicit due diligence policies that ensure the company maintains oversight of where ships are recycled and ensures that ships previously owned or operated by your company are not discarded in yards that use the beaching method. Adopt an explicit “off the beach” policy.
- Ensure that ships are not recycled in yards that use child labor.
- Regularly monitor conditions in the yards where the company’s ships are being dismantled, including by engaging safely and meaningfully with the workers and their representatives, and provide public updates. Engage with shipbreaking facilities owners to support them in their reform process.
- Publicly report on types and amounts of hazardous materials onboard vessels within your entire fleet according to the standards set by the IMO.
- Invest in ship recycling facilities so that they can ensure full containment, stable industrial platforms, protective equipment, and environmentally sound management of hazardous materials, including disposal.
- Adopt a sustainable “cradle-to-cradle” approach, investing in green shipbuilding practices developed in close consultation with sustainable recycling experts.
- Support legislation for a ship recycling license.
- Publicly report and keep track of all sales of ships across their lifetime up to the time of their recycling. Publicly report on the place and conditions of the specific facilities where they are recycled.
- Adopt public commitments as a requirement of membership in the SRTI, including not to sell ships to cash buyers and to ensure ships are not sold to yards that practice ‘beaching.’
- Require all shipping companies conducting operations in the EU to implement a risk-based approach due diligence policy on their whole value-chain in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), recognizing shipbreaking as a high-risk business operation, and to publicly report all sales, including to cash buyers, to ensure the traceability of the ship’s beneficial ownership over its lifetime.
- Ensure that the proposed EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) covers the full value chain, including the use, disposal, and recycling of goods.
- Adopt a policy against financing or providing loans for the purchase of ships to shipbreaking yards that use the ‘beaching’ method.
- Adopt the Responsible Ship Recycling Standards.
- Divest from shipping companies that sell to cash buyers or whose ships end up in yards that use the beaching method and violate labor rights.
- Invest in developing recycling capacity that complies with international standards on occupational, health, and safety, including the use of industrial platforms, such as drydocks, and supports a transition towards sustainable life cycle management.
This report was researched and written by Julia Bleckner, Senior Asia Researcher at Human Rights Watch, in collaboration with Ingvild Jenssen, Nicola Mulinaris, and Sara Rita da Costa at the NGO Shipbreaking Platform. Jim Wormington, senior researcher and advocate in the Economic Justice and Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, provided expert analysis and editing.
At Human Rights Watch, the report was reviewed by Meenakshi Ganguly, Deputy Asia Director; Tom Porteous, deputy Program director; Kyle Knight, Senior Researcher on Health and Human Rights, Richard Pearshouse, director of Environment and Human Rights Division, Bede Sheppard, Deputy director of the children's rights division, and Kriti Sharma, Senior Researcher in the Disability Rights Division. Hélène de Rengervé and Emilie McDonnell provided advocacy review. Clive Baldwin provided legal review. Robbie Newton, Asia Coordinator, provided editing and production assistance. Matthew Gill, Senior Associate at Howard Kennedy LLP provided additional review.
This research and reporting would not have been possible without the brave and gracious support of shipbreaking workers who risk their lives to shed light on abuses in the industry and advocate for the rights of their colleagues.