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Dhaka Tribune

Bangladesh retains top spot in global ship breaking trade

Bangladesh has taken the lead by dismantling some 234 ships in 2019

Update : 08 Feb 2020, 08:44 PM

Bangladesh has again retained top spot in the global ship-breaking industry.

The NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a Belgium based advocacy organization, has published data on ships dismantled worldwide in 2019.

Bangladesh has taken the lead by dismantling some 234 ships in 2019, according to the list published on February 4.

According to the platform which ensures the safe and environmentally sound dismantling of end-of-life ships worldwide, 674 ocean going commercial ships and offshore units were sold to scrap yards in 2019. Of these vessels, 469 large tankers, bulkers, floating platforms, cargo, and passenger ships, were broken down on only three beaches in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, amounting to nearly 90% of the gross tonnage dismantled globally.

According to ‘Review of Maritime Transport 2019’ published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Bangladesh secured the top position in ship breaking by dismantling 47.2% vessels of the world in 2018.

According to the report, India dismantled 25.6% of ocean going vessels, Pakistan 21.5%, Turkey 2.3%, and China 2% in 2018.

In 2017, the top four ship breaking countries were India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and China.

No respite from workplace casualty

The platform documented accidents that killed 24 workers in Chittagong, making 2019 the worst year for Bangladeshi yards in terms of fatalities since 2010. At least another 34 workers were badly injured.

Differing with the platform’s casualty statistics, Palash Kumar Das, Inspector,  Department of Inspection for Factories & Establishment (DIFE), told Dhaka Tribune that 19 ship breakers died on the job.

Speaking to Dhaka Tribune, Tapan Dutta, convener of the Ship Breaking Workers’ Trade Union Forum, said Bangladesh has become the top dumping ground for discarded ships in the world with the country dismantling the highest number of vessels due to cheap labor and lax regulations. 

"The dismantling will further increase in Bangladesh in the coming days as China and India have put a limit on the number of imports of scrap vessels on the back of environmental concerns," Tapan said.

"Ship demolition is a highly risky affair, yet ship breaking yard owners hardly follow occupational safety standards and wage board regulations. The ship breakers are denied their rights to form trade unions. Insolvent ship breakers retain this sort of hazardous job as they have no other options, and yard owners take advantage of the situation,” said the labour rights activist. 

Muhammad Ali Shahin, senior program coordinator of Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), an organization for sustainable development, told Dhaka Tribune that the ships brought in for scrapping should be properly cleaned before beaching.

"Ship breaking yards must ensure that scrapping does not cause any pollution and health hazards through releasing hazardous wastes. The ship breakers should also ensure occupational safety to avert workplace accidents. We are waiting for the day when Bangladesh will gain international recognition for complying with all regulations,” said Shahin, who has been working on the ship breaking sector for 18 years.

There are an estimated 3,000 permanent and 5,000 to 7,000 temporary workers in the ship breaking yards  on the 25km strip of Sitakunda upazila in the district. 

Coastal degradation

According to the platform, thousands of protected mangrove trees have been cut to make way for  ships discarded for scrapping in Bangladesh.

14,000 mangrove plants were felled in 2009 in Sitakunda to make space for ship breaking yards.

According to an estimate by Chittagong based  YPSA, over the past few years, at least 60,000 mangrove trees have been cut along the coast near the port city of Chittagong to make way for more ships. The felling of mangroves has negative consequences as they are essential for the ecosystem and are the last barrier against the devastating effects of typhoons and floods.

Long-term health impacts

As per the platform, the risk of developing a fatal occupational health hazard is high as workers lack proper respiratory equipment to protect themselves against toxic fumes and contaminated materials released during the cutting and cleaning operations.

In most cases, harmful substances are not even identified and therefore they put workers’ health in harm's way. Some cancers, including asbestos related mesothelioma, will only develop 15 to 20 years after exposure, and cause many more casualties among former ship breaking workers.

In addition to taking a huge toll on the health and lives of workers, ship breaking is a highly polluting industry. 

In South Asia, ships are grounded before they are pulled and broken apart on tidal mudflats. On these once pristine beaches, coastal ecosystems and local communities depending on them, are devastated by toxic spills and other types of pollution caused by the breaking operations. 

As long as ship breaking is carried out by beaching, the environment will suffer.

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