European maritime companies are ditching their old ships for scrap on Bangladeshi beaches in dangerous and polluting conditions resulting in the death of many workers, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Thursday.
The 90-page report, "Trading Lives for Profit: How the Shipping Industry Circumvents Regulations to Scrap Toxic Ships on Bangladesh's Beaches" states that Bangladesh's southeastern Sitakunda beaches have emerged as one of the world's largest shipbreaking yards, fuelling the South Asian country's booming construction industry and its need for cheap sources of steel.
The report said, European firms are among the shipping companies to have sent 520 vessels to the site since 2020, where thousands of workers take apart ships without protective gear.
"Companies scrapping ships in Bangladesh's dangerous and polluting yards are making a profit at the expense of Bangladeshi lives and the environment," said HRW researcher Julia Bleckner.
"Shipping companies should stop using loopholes in international regulations and take responsibility for safely and responsibly managing their waste."
Workers told HRW they used their socks as gloves to avoid burns while cutting through molten steel, covered their mouths with shirts to avoid inhaling toxic fumes, and carried chunks of steel barefoot.
"Workers described injuries from falling chunks of steel or being trapped inside a ship when it caught fire or pipes exploded," HRW said in their report, published jointly with Belgian-based NGO Shipbreaking Platform.
At least 62 workers have been killed by accidents in Sitakunda's shipbreaking yards since 2019, Bangladeshi environmental group Young Power in Social Action has said.
Two workers died last week in separate incidents after falling from partially dismantled ships, police said.
The Bangladesh Ship Breakers and Recyclers Association (BSBRA), which represents yard owners, said its members had moved to upgrade safety ahead of a new international convention on safe and environmentally sound scrapping, due to enter into force in 2025.
However, Abu Taher, president of Bangladesh Ship Breakers and Recyclers Association (BSBRA), declined the HRW allegation and told The Business Standard that there is no asbestos victim in the industry, as the ships built after 2000 do not carry any asbestos. "It has been a conspiracy to shut down the prospective ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh", he alleged.
"We are turning our shipbreaking yards into green yards even though it is expensive. We are working on it. We supply protective equipment to workers", he added.
However, Nazmul Hosen, office secretary of BSBRA, admitted that a ship carries about 5-6 kg of asbestos. "It requires a clarification as to which is asbestos and which is not, " he added.
Howerever, Fazlul Kabir Mintu, coordinator for the Danish-funded Occupational Safety and Security Information Center, said yard owners operated in a "climate of impunity" because of their outsized influence in local politics.
"There is little or no attention to worker safety in dozens of yards, apart from the green yards," he added.
Many ships sent to Sitakunda contained asbestos, said Ripon Chowdhury, executive director of the OSHE Foundation that works with shipbreaking labourers.
Ripon CHowdhury, executive director of OSHE Foundation, told the Business Standard, "We conducted the study on 110 ship-breaking workers following the International Labor Organization (ILO) protocol under supervision of a registered physician who found and certified 33 of them as asbestos victims in 2017."
"All the 33 workers were victims of 30%-60% lung damage and had severe breathing problems along with other symptoms. Of the certified victims 3 have already died while the others are living miserable lives", he added.
Ship-breaking industry expert, Mohammad Ali Shahin said that there is an international guideline to remove asbestos from the ships. "If the ships are dismantled under the green shipyard by following the guideline the asbestos invasion can be checked," he said.
"We have already trained 500 workers in the industry to handle asbestos safely", he added.