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Home >> Life
UPDATED: 08:46, March 21, 2007
Feature: Workers of ship breaking industry in Bangladesh gasping for survival
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Every year, scores of poor workers are either blown away through explosion or smashed under scrapped pieces in Bangladesh's ship breaking industry.

Although many of the workers escaped death, but they have become crippled as they were being seriously wounded in such accidents. Moreover, hundreds of workers in the industry are falling sick as they inhale polluted air with different gases coming out of closed ship chambers.

The latest incident of death happened last week when two workers of the industry were smashed under a steel plate at a ship breaking yard in southeastern Sitakunda, 25 kms north of Bangladesh's second largest city Chittagong, where the industry is located.

The accident took place while a group of workers were cutting a ship and an iron plate fell on them and two of them died on the spot. Another worker was seriously injured, who is having treatment at a local hospital.

Many of the workers suffer from breathing difficulty, tuberculosis and skin diseases.

The working environment is dirty and dangerous, the wages are poor and the job is for livelihood whatever risky they maybe.

The workers are cutting up filthy aging oil tankers, chemical carriers and rusting ferries, which are used in mills to make iron rods for building houses and other purposes.

Thousands of workers work in the industry with a poor salary of 1.75 U.S. dollars a day. They use blow torches to dismantle dozens of ships every year and die in explosions and scrap fall in the industry.

"Everywhere in the industry is dirt with oily substances. Often we feel breathing difficulty and our eyes are sore," said Abdur Rashid, an engineer who comes from the southern Barisal district.

His face and body blackened with oily dirt and clothes were like so. They all use black clothes so that the dirt could not be felt so much, Rashid said.

"We suffer from various diseases like breathing problems, many with tuberculosis and various skin diseases," said another worker Keramat Ali, of around 35 years old coming from northern of the country.

Replying to a query, he said, "I was forced to come here as I could not get any job in my home district, but I will have to survive with my children. This is why I have come here," Ali said. "Don't think we are willingly working. Getting no other jobs, which can ensure my family's two meals, I was compelled to come to a far place from my home," Keramat Ali said.

Around 300 people have died and several hundred injured, many of whom became crippled for life during the last 10 years, said officials engaged in the industry wishing not to be identified.

The air above the ship breaking yards becomes so polluted that several years back all the poultry birds of a farm located nearby died with the polluted air. People residing in the adjoining areas also fell sick and suffered from breathing problems.

The ship breaking yards are located at sea shore of Bay of Bengal and are polluting the sea waters with oil spilling out of the oil tankers being scrapped.

The industry employs 40,000 workers, who have little access to medical treatment.

Rashid's family lives in his village home. "I cannot give them enough money to live clean and have treatment while sick. Even I cannot send them to schools because I don't have the money."

Often explosions occur in oil tankers while they open the closed oil tankers and the workers die when cut steel plates fall on them.

Other workers working in the industry, which houses 32 breaking yards, said similar stories of their life, but they have no intention to leave the industry to seek other jobs.

Other hazards of the industry are owners sometime buy ships polluted with radiation. A few months ago, an owner wanted to bring such a ship in the yard banned by the world's environment watchdog World Green Peace Organization.

Similar incidents happened twice during the last one and a half years.

In the face of stiff opposition by environment activists of Bangladesh, the yard owners ultimately failed to bring those ships in the yards.

The Bangladeshi government also banned the entry of the ships into the yards.

Abdur Rashid said if these radiated scraps are recycled in making rods and if those rods are used in houses, they will discharge radiation for ages, for which people residing in the houses might be sick with serious diseases like cancers.

"We have been in this business for decades and have been seeing it is growing gradually, providing jobs to workers mostly from outside Chittagong region," said Swakatul Islam, an owner of a yard.

He said, "We do not want to deprive our workers, but we have limitations." He said, "Whatever we give them, some portion of the wages are being taken by the middlemen, who are supplying workers. "

Replying to a question whether the life of the workers, who work in such hazardous situation were insured, Zafar Ahmed, another owner replied in the negative, but "What we do is that if any worker dies in accident, we give some money at a time for their family."

Ship breakers import uncleaned vessels to save costs, adding to health hazards and pollution.

Swakat Islam said India and other countries clean vessels at Colombo in Sri Lanka, before taking them to their yards. "But if we do this the cost will be doubled and the price of rods would go up," he said. For this, "We cannot do it."

The ship breaking industry was established after a cyclone in 1960, which killed thousands of people, and beached one big foreign ship that could not be refloated. It took years to scrap, leading to the birth of the industry in Bangladesh.

Source: Xinhua


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