Kadamrasul / Bangladesh: Bangladeshi workers dismantling ships and recycling its parts say they know their jobs are dangerous, but they have no better options to feed their families.
At least 10 workers were killed in mishaps and explosions on board ships while they were being dismantled over the past year, to raise the toll to more than 1,000 since 1996, police say.
Recycling cargo: A file photo of a scrapped ship awaiting dismantling at a ship-breaking yard in Chittagong. Photograph: Rafiqur Rahman / Reuters
About 30,000 workers, only a few wearing boots and almost none with helmets, work in some 22 ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh to dismantle around 80 giant, out-of-service ocean-going vessels and oil-tankers annually.
However, ship-breaking officials say the death rate was much higher during the initial stage of the Bangladesh shipbreaking industry in the early 1980s, and awareness, precautions and training have subsequently reduced casualties.
As a precaution every scrapped oil tanker must sail to the yard from the port of origin with empty and open reservoirs, so lingering chemicals and residues get neutralized naturally through ventilation, said a ship-breaker, who declined to be named.
“Besides accidents, shipbreaking workers are prone to many diseases including cancer, ulceration, sterility and deafness,” Akhtar Hossain Chowdhury, a teacher of dermatology in the Chittagong Medical College Hospital, said.
“We risk our lives here only to support our families, because hazard-free regular employment is not easily available,” said Mohammad Malek, a ship-breaking worker at a yard at Kadamrasul, near the Chittagong port.
“For every 12 hours of work contractors pay each of us 300 taka (Rs184)”, barely sufficient to meet daily needs, he said.
The workers use primitive hammers, axes and acetylene flames to extract some 1.8 million tonnes (mt) of steel per annum, against Bangladesh’s needs of 3mt. The rest of its demand is met by imports.
“As the industry is vital for us we have taken steps to reduce mishaps, by imparting training and creating awareness,” said A.K.M. Shafiqullah, director general of Bangladesh’s department of shipping. The department is the leading authority issuing permission for importing, beaching and dismantling scrapped ships.
Bangladesh, which has no iron ore, prefers the metal from the ships as prices of steel billets rose to $1,000 (Rs42,000) a tonne recently in the world market, up 40% over the last year.
Though ship-breaking and other hazardous work is banned in the West, firms there still send disabled ships to poor countries for scrapping and for recycling of parts.
“For example, engines of scrapped ships are reimported by some western countries for reuse,” Kamaluddin Ahmed, owner of ship-breakers Arefin Enterprise, said.
Bangladesh’s 800 steel re-rolling mills consume all the metal retrieved from scrapped ship to produce construction rods and roofing sheets, said Ahmed, also a vice-president of the Bangladesh Ship-breakers Association.
Ship-breaking is the most dangerous among all recycling jobs in Bangladesh, including of batteries in which workers can receive serious acid burns, says Quamrul Islam Chowdhury, a noted Bangladeshi environmentalist.
“They (Bangladeshis) take up the risky job, often knowing the deadly consequences, because they have no other way to beat abject poverty,” said Abul Momen, a columnist and a political and social analyst.
He said the government should adopt a national policy to protect and develop the 1 billion taka a year industry as soon as possible.
Similar sentiments came from Larry Maramis, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) country director for Bangladesh.
In a report following a study on ship-breaking conducted in 2004, UNDP said: “The huge task of dismantling ships is done manually in Bangladesh, with basic protection like helmets, gloves or goggles not provided to the workers.”
A senior official of the shipping ministry, who declined to be named, said the government would soon announce a policy to safeguard workers while boosting the industry.