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300 workers die in harness at ship-breaking yards, September 18, 2003

Chittagong, Bangladesh, Sept 18: Some 45,000 workers of the ship-breaking industry in Chittagong are now working in hazardous atmosphere risking life in handling of old equipment used to break ships and dealing with toxic chemicals in their daily routine work. In the absence of any protective measures at least 300 workers of the yards had so far died and about 550 were handicapped in accidents in harness in the last 18 years. At present the workers of 30 ship-breaking yards in Chittagong are working at high risk of accident particularly explosion of gas cylinder and oil tanker.

Sources said, one worker at a ship-breaking yard was killed and three others were injured in a gas explosion in a scrapped ship on April 9 this year at Shitalpur area under Sitakundu upazila in the district. The dead worker was the cutter man of the Lalbagh shipyard and identified as Sagar (21). The three injured were identified as Babul, Anwar and Suvash

In another workplace accident, two workers at a ship-breaking yard were killed and six others injured when they were struck by a scrapped steel plate in August last year at Kadam Rasul area under Sitakundu upazila. The two victims were the cutter men of Ahmad Mujtaba Steel Industry and identified as Humayun (28) and Md. Belal (30). Another worker Selim Uddin (28) died in a similar accident in July last year.

The worst workplace accident at any shipyard in recent memory

In the worst workplace accident at any shipyard in recent memory, at least 16 workers were burnt alive and 50 others injured seriously as an oil tanker caught fire during scrapping at ZN enterprise of Shitalpur Ship Breaking Yard on May 31 in 2000. The victims were identified as Azam, Giasuddin, Jamaluddin, Sumon, Hannan, Kuddus, Rafiq, Habibur Rahman and Hanif. The identities of the rest two could not be known.

Ship Breaking Yards (SBY) emerged as an industry in the country after 1985. Over the last two decades it has flourished as a large industry. At present 30 yards are running business in the industry in the port city. The ship-breakers buy the old ships, which are abandoned by the owners, at the Chittagong port. They break and cut the ships in the yards and sell the furniture, scrap metals, machines and other materials of the ships. There are big markets of the furniture, scraps and other materials of the broken ships in Dhaka and Chittagong

The owners of the scrapped ships have to procure a certificate from the explosive department but 70 per cent owners do not procure the certificates, sources said. On the other hand the officials of the explosive department never inspect the scrapped ships but issues certificates taking bribes, reliable sources said. The re-rolling mills depend on the SBYs for the supply of scrapped iron. The iron rods and other building materials available from the scrapped ships are not durable, sources informed. Buildings made of such scrapped iron rods and other materials are highly vulnerable to earthquake.

Sources said that despite the presence of oil, gas, chemical and other explosive materials in the scrapped ships, the workers cut the ships with gaseous oxidising flame without any protection that posed a threat to their life. They have no fireproof costumes or helmets. The workers of SBYs alleged that they did not know any rules and regulations of ship breaking. The owners never provide them with helmets, boots or jackets. The workers of SBYs said that many workers died, became handicapped and were injured in workplace accidents but they did not get any compensation from the owners. It is mandatory that if any worker is handicapped or dies at work, the owners of the yard have to pay Taka 50,000 to one lakh to the victimís family as compensation. But the owners never paid any compensation to the family of any victim. Sometimes the owners even conceal the bodies of the victims of accident.

The workers complain that the owners of the yards manage the police, locally influential leaders and pay the terrorists to conceal the bodies of accident victims. The thana registers general diaries (GD) of the accidents but no case is filed in connection with such incidents. Moreover oil, gas and chemicals are discharged by the scrapped ships in the sea and land polluting the environment. The workers said, among the 45 thousand workers engaged in the industry, 20 thousand come from North Bengal. The cutting contractors employ the workers but do not collect their addresses and never maintain registers of the workers. (The Independent, 19. 09. 03)

Catastrophe at ship-breaking yard

Authority can't ignore the risks any longer

We share the concerns expressed by environmentalists over pollution taking place at and around the ship-breaking yard in Chittagong. Their worry stems from the recent disaster at Sitakunda after toxic gas spewing from the yard caused respiratory and skin problems as well as burnt trees and harmed animals in the area. In fact it should be an eye opener of sorts for the concerned authorities to the lack of proper management in order to prevent such disasters. In other words, if certain precautions were taken, such pollution could easily have been prevented.

So the obvious question would be why weren't any steps taken? Didn't the authorities turn a blind eye to what was happening? Maybe they were just waiting for a big disaster before taking any action? We have reasons to feel that way. Though the recent development got widespread media coverage bringing the issue to the fore, such incidents had occurred in the area, maybe in a smaller scale, in the past. Explosions of gas cylinders while cutting iron with gas, fire erupting from the oil tankers had almost become a part of the daily work pattern in the yards. Many a labourer lost his life in those accidents, many lost either their limbs or arms, and almost all of them did not get any compensation.

Activists had many times in the past emphasised on proper precautions for the workers. They had also demanded a stop to using minor labour in the yards. But all the exhortations fell on deaf ears. Because those flouting the laws were not taken to task, they could get away with everything. None of the investigation reports on the accidents saw the light of the day; very few companies were either punished or brought to trial. It's high time the government took the matter more seriously. It would benefit the exchequer even further by fetching more foreign currency if ship-breaking were streamlined. It's not just a matter of individual gain or loss, lack of proper control over the trade can cause catastrophe to a larger number of people (Source: Editorial, The Daily Star,Sept. 21, 2003).

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