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Bangladesh: aiming to smash the dirty ship-breaking industry

Bangladesh’s ship-breaking beaches are soaked in a toxic soup of hazardous substances, such as oily wastes, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead and arsenic. These toxins leak out of ships as they are being dismantled bit by bit.
workers dismantling ships in chittagong

Workers dismantling ships in Chittagong. © Koskuko Dreamtime


Because their environment is so severely contaminated, and because of frequent fires, explosions and accidents, life for those in the ship-breaking industry is extremely hazardous and there are regular fatalities. There are 18,000 men working in the industry, some as young as 14, and all are paid very little, housed in the most basic accommodation, and provided with little or no medical care.


The 1995 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal bans the export of toxic waste. Yet many of these ships come to Bangladesh from countries such as the US, UK, Norway and Japan. Seeking to cut costs, owners change the flags of the ships and then export them illegally.


“Employers never treat us as humans. They cry for us only when BELA’s legal actions lead to the closure of their businesses. If BELA was not there, the world probably would have never known about our miseries. We just hope that one day the government will come forward in providing us with decent jobs and protecting us from the cruel treatment of our rich masters.” Given, shipbreaking labourer

Friends of the Earth Bangladesh/BELA is striving to ensure that such ships can only be accepted by Bangladesh’s ship-breaking yards when they are certified as being free of toxic substances, as required by the Basel Convention. They also want the Bangladeshi government to enact and enforce standards that genuinely protect workers and the environment.

In 2009, Friends of the Earth Bangladesh scored a resounding victory when the Bangladeshi High Court declared that all shipbreaking yards operating without environmental clearance – in other words all of them - should close their operations within a matter of weeks. This followed a writ filed by Friends of the Earth Bangladesh, challenging the entry of a Greenpeace-blacklisted ship, MT Enterprise. The Court also banned Bangladeshi shipbreakers from importing end-of-life vessels without first ensuring they have been pre-cleaned of hazardous materials.

Since then, rather than focusing on compliance, the toxic ship exporters and ship breakers have done their utmost to influence governments in the exporting countries and corrupt lawmakers and bureaucrats in Bangladesh. A recent order dated 7 March 2011, does permit the import of ships for a very limited period of two months, but the conditions attached mean that imports should remain limited in practice - unless they are deliberately flouted, as has previously happened.


Friends of the Earth Bangladesh, a member of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, is determined to ensure that the original rulings are upheld and enforced, and that the coastline and the poor labour force in Bangladesh are protected from exposure to deadly contaminants imported from developed countries.


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