European companies exploit loopholes to scrap ships in Bangladesh, report finds

Ahammad Foyez
European companies exploit loopholes to scrap ships in Bangladesh, report finds Workers tear ships into pieces for scrap at a shipbreaking yard in Sitakunda on the coast of Chittagong, Bangladesh, May 21, 2023.

European shipping companies have switched to “a flag of convenience” to scrap their end-of-life vessels in Bangladesh’s polluting yards, bypassing the European Union’s regulations and exposing workers to toxic materials and exploitation, international advocacy groups allege in a Thursday report.

Ships sailing under an EU flag are required to be recycled in an EU-approved facility. None of the facilities are in Bangladesh. 

The 90-page report by Human Rights Watch and Shipbreaking Platform said companies circumvent the requirements by assuming a flag from a non-EU country once a ship nears the end of its life.

“Companies scrapping ships in Bangladesh’s dangerous and polluting yards are making a profit at the expense of Bangladeshi lives and the environment,” Julia Bleckner, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, was quoted in the report saying.

“Shipping companies should stop using loopholes in international regulations and take responsibility for safely and responsibly managing their waste,” she said.

Last year, over 30% of the world’s defunct fleet was owned by European companies, but only 5% had an EU flag when sold for scrap, according to the report titled “Trading Lives for Profit.”

Mohammad Abu Taher, president of a lobby group representing the owners of Bangladesh shipbreaking yards, denied the allegations raised in the report.

“These allegations are not true at all,” he told BenarNews. “We do not understand who [are doing] these reports and how.”

A spokesperson for the European Commission told BenarNews that it was “aware of the need to guarantee the enforcement of the EU Ship Recycling Regulation,” but enforcement rests with individual member states.

“Regarding the current EU legal regime applying to end-of-life vessels, the evaluation of the EU Ship Recycling Regulation is ongoing, focusing for example on circumvention,” the spokesperson said.

The European Commission is part of the European Union’s executive body.

With an estimated yearly turnover of U.S. $1.5 billion, Bangladesh’s shipbreaking industry is the world’s largest, according to a recent U.N. report. 

Since 2020 alone, the HRW and Shipbreaking Platform’s report finds, 20,000 Bangladeshi workers have torn more than 520 ships into pieces, far more tonnage than in any other country in the world.

As many as 150,000 people are directly and indirectly connected to the industry in Bangladesh, according to Young Power in Social Action, a local NGO, which reported that at least 245 workers died because of work-related accidents in the last 18 years, including 62 in the last five.

Poor conditions

In the report by HRW and Shipbreaking Platform, workers described “injuries from falling chunks of steel or being trapped inside a ship when it caught fire or pipes exploded.” 

Workers also said they used “their 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 barefoot.”

“Lack of 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 private vehicle to take them to a hospital,” the report said.

The International Labor Organization describes shipbreaking as one of the world’s most dangerous jobs. 

The life expectancy for men in the shipbreaking industry is 20 years lower than the average, according to a 2010 report by Shipbreaking Platform. 

“If I am distracted for even a moment in the place where I work, I could die immediately,” a 31-year-old worker was quoted in Thursday’s report.

A 2019 survey of shipbreaking workers by the University of Chittagong estimated that 13% of the workforce are children, which jumps to 20% during illegal night shifts. 

Shipbreaking employees reported they often are denied breaks or sick leave, even when injured at work, contravening Bangladesh’s labor regulations. 

The new report said these workers often receive only a fraction of the wages they are legally owed under Bangladesh’s wage standards for shipbreaking labor.

It’s uncommon for workers to get formal contracts, which allows yard owners to conceal fatalities and injuries. Attempts to unionize workers can lead to termination and harassment, the report said.

In Chittagong, on the country’s southeastern coast where many yards are located, a senior government inspector did not comment on the report, but insisted his office kept an eye on the yards.

“My office is monitoring shipbreaking yards regularly to ensure health and safety issues, including a safe working environment,” said Abdullah Al Sakib Mubarrath, a deputy inspector at Factories and Establishments in Chittagong.


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