by Peter Xaiver Rossetti
Massive cargo transport ships are something many tend not to think of. Despite the fact that the world is connected by these massive metal vessels traversing the world’s vast oceans and seas, transporting goods to and from ports all over the world, they remain nearly non-existent in the public imagination. Therefore it is fair to say that not much thought is ever given to what happens to these colossal steel beasts when they have reached the end of their life. This article aims to fix that. By shedding light on the industry of shipbreaking, specifically in Bangladesh, this article will present the brutal reality of what the ship cemetery is like – where ships go to die.
Shipbreaking, that is the work of dismantling old, end-of-life transport ships, has grown as an industry in the country of Bangladesh. On paper, it is a good deal for all involved. Wealthy European and North American transport companies ditch their unusable ships in Bangladesh and, in return, Bangladeshis receive wages and work and their government uses the industry to derive nearly 90% of the country’s steel supply (Rabbi & Rahman, 2017). Since 2020, the Bangladeshi shipbreaking industry has ripped apart more than 520 ships, far more than any other country (Human Rights Watch, 2023). However, in reality, shipbreaking is an industry fraught with workers’ rights violations and has terrible effects on the physical environment.
For context, the International Labour Organization has designated shipbreaking as one of the most dangerous jobs a human being can perform (Human Rights Watch, 2023). In the Bangladeshi shipbreaking industry, this bleak reality is coupled with the fact that workers are not at all well protected from or well informed about any potential dangers while working. This means that many Bangladeshi workers simply pick up a job as a shipbreaker and are given little to no training or education on safe procedures as well as no safety equipment such as hard-hats, tools or gloves (Human Rights Watch, 2023). The result is depressingly, but predictably, disaster. For example, as the shipbreaking industry was just beginning in Bangladesh in 2000, 50 workers died in an explosion while dismantling an old tanker (Rabbi & Rahman, 2023). Many other causes of work-related deaths include falling from extremely tall heights, lack of ventilation while working amongst leftover fumes and gasses as well as getting crushed by the massive, metal parts cut out from the ship (Rabbi & Rahman, 2023).
The effects these deaths have on the families of the workers are devastating. Many of these shipbreaking companies do not provide adequate compensation for a lost loved one, leaving these families not only emotionally distraught but financially struggling (Rabbi & Rahman, 2023). Since it is such a dangerous workplace there are always positions open in a shipbreaking yard, with many of these roles left by deceased adult workers being filled by children. Roughly 13% of those working in the shipbreaking industry are children; a number that jumps to 20% once those working the illegal night shifts are counted as well (Human Rights Watch, 2023).
The environmental cost of the shipbreaking industry is just as terrible. Instead of taking in these old ships at a proper dock or harbor, most of the time these ships simply run up onto the shore, “beaching” the vessel (Human Rights Watch, 2023). As soon as these ships have made it onto the beach, the process of shipbreaking begins right then and there. Meaning that all the leftover toxic chemicals and waste left in the ship run into the sand and are taken back out into the ocean with the tide (Human Rights Watch, 2023). An example of one of these destructive chemicals is asbestos, as many of these older ships used it as insulating material. As these ships are being taken apart, the asbestos makes its way into the beach environment, affecting local communities and marine wildlife by causing adverse health effects such as lung cancer (Rabbi & Rahman, 2017). And without any dedicated areas for shipbreaking, there is nothing preventing these chemicals from spreading.
Ultimately, the shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh is absolutely destructive. It has destroyed many individual lives, families, and local beach environments and will continue to do so unchecked unless real change is made. Though as of right now, there are two reasons why this change seems unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future. Firstly, although Western governments have made it illegal to send end-of-life ships to Bangladesh, these wealthy companies based in Europe and North America have found a loophole. By using middle men from other countries not subject to these same laws, these companies have found a way to still send their ships to the shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh (Human Rights Watch, 2023). The second reason lies in why these companies choose Bangladesh in the first place, namely, the fact that it is inexpensive to do so. Shipbreakers in Bangladesh are paid a fraction of the national legal minimum wage there, keeping operating costs low and hence attractive to foreign companies looking for a place to dump their old ships (Human Rights Watch, 2023).
Both of these reasons are what have allowed the shipbreaking industry to prosper in Bangladesh. And until these loopholes are patched and shipbreakers receive fair wages in Bangladesh, this stark reality will continue. The long-term adverse effects of the industry in the country are yet to be seen but further ecological degradation and lower wages for future generations can surely be speculated based on the current state of affairs discussed above. Meaning, that if things continue as they have, this ship cemetery will become the resting place for more than just transport vessels.
Human Rights Watch. (2023, September 28). Bangladesh: Shipping firms profit from Labor abuse. https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/09/27/bangladesh-shipping-firms-profit-labor-abuse
Rabbi, H. R., & Rahman, A. (2017). Ship Breaking and Recycling Industry of Bangladesh; Issues and Challenges. Procedia Engineering, 194, 254–259. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.proeng.2017.08.143