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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 78
July 26 , 2008

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Human Rights analysis

Ship breaking: Irony of “iron”

S. Rizwana Hasan

Breaking of ship started in Bangladesh reportedly in the 60's when, due to the devastating storm, a large ship ran aground and was left abandoned that inspired the local people to remove parts of it and sell the same to market. The business, however, started getting organized in the 70's at a time when other major ship breaking countries gradually started to switch to other businesses. The reason for their withdrawal and our increased investment were on two different considerations, respectively force of environmental laws and availability of cheap labour. It is also said since Bangladesh has no deposit of its own iron ore, the market for scrap iron available from the ship breaking industry expanded here. The fact remains, all countries need iron and whether they have their own deposit or not, switch for other practical options that Bangladesh perhaps has not fully explored. It rather opted to patronize the extremely hazardous and polluting industry of ship breaking making its own precious ecosystem and poor and helpless people hostages and making mockery to its environment and labour related laws.

At present, a total of 68 companies are engaged in the business that operates in 32 yards stretching an area of 10 kilometres in the southern part of Sitakunda, Chittagong. The industry claims to employ around 20,000 people although a common allegation against the industry is that it does not keep the records of employment. Records obtained from various sources indicate that 33% of the total employment of the sector comes from the Chittagong district, while respectively 30% comes from the poverty stricken northwest and another 25% comes from Mymensingh. While the locals get the more skilled and less hazardous work, it is just the opposite for the non-locals. The industry takes full advantage of the helplessness of the poor people who travel all the way from the North to the South for earning a minimum living. These non-locals are given the risky works and sadly enough get “exploited” in the name of “employment” that even the government likes to cherish to keep the unaccountable industry going.

The fact that the industry has categorically failed to maintain the minimum level of labour protection and welfare as per the labour laws is evident from the reports of ILO, UNDP, Det Norske Veritas and Green Peace. According to a joint report of the Green Peace and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH), on an average one ship breaking worker dies at the yards in Bangladesh every week and every day one worker gets injured.

So far the argument from the ship breaking industry is that they are not classified as industry and hence are not bound by the laws on labour protection. The 2006 Labour Act has clearly defined “ship breaking” as industry being part of production process. This definition however, has not helped much in terms of ensuring the monitoring of the yards by the labour inspectors. Records suggest that this year alone the number of deaths have already risen to 10, that again in a period of just three months, i.e. from end April till date. The number of deaths kept low from November-March as the ship breakers opted not to undertake any breaking operation in that period allegedly to increase the price of iron.

An inquiry into the accidents suggests that in most cases they took place due to explosions (indicates callous certification by the Explosives Department) and fall of heavy metal plates on the labourers. After each of the deaths, the ship breakers tried to evade their legal responsibility of depositing taka one lakh as compensation for the family of the deceased workers. They instead opted to give a token amount to the families of the workers and got them to sign on a legally untenable agreement stating that they had received some money and did not hold any further legal claims. It was only after the much delayed intervention from the Labour Directorate that some of them have deposited the money very recently although the death might have taken place in 2006.

It is evident from these facts that the ship breakers deny the labour even minimum protection in terms of employment documents, personal protective devices, primary treatment, regular check ups, minimum wages and so on. None of the companies maintain any credible records of employment and do not give employment letters to the workers which makes it difficult to monitor the deaths. In no single instance a report into the death has been made public nor is there any report to suggest the measures taken by the ship breakers to prevent future casualties. Many instances reportedly go unaddressed due to lack of record keeping. All these are clear violations of the Labour Act, 2006 the monitoring of which apparently is nobody's duty.

While the industry categorically fails to protect its workers from hazards and deaths, in protecting the industry, it shamelessly brings forward the issue of 'employment' and sells the same as their trump card in protecting the business. In the event of the unusually high number of deaths in the last few months, the government must come forward in assigning the liability of the deaths against the employers. Someone must take the responsibility of these deaths.

The industry is widely blamed for not being technically or scientifically organized where the management is very primitive. Considering the environmental consequences of ship breaking operation, the global community is increasingly terming ships destined for breaking as “wastes” and is subjecting the same to stricter regulations including pre-cleaning, moving from beaching to dry dock options and so on (Basel Technical Guidelines for the Environmentally Sound Management of the Full and Partial Dismantling of Ships). The Environment Conservation Act, 1995 and the Rules of 1997 clearly require the industry to obtain “environmental clearance” prior to operation. Unfortunately, none of these 68 companies or 32 yards have ever taken any clearance and are operating in clear violation of legal provisions. The common environmental hazards that unregulated ship breaking can cause include contamination of soil and water by discharge of oil and waste water while the risk of asbestos, chemicals, hydrocarbons, toxic items and radiation remain there all the time. In the event of lack of containment to prevent toxins from entering into the water, soil and air, it has been found that the ship breaking facilities of Chittagong has high concentration of oil in the adjoining water and high levels of heavy metals, PCBs and TBTs in the soil while asbestos is omnipresent.

Despite such legal requirement and clear findings on the pollution created by the ship breaking industry, none of the yards reportedly have obtained clearance nor has any government agency ever attempted to stop the functioning of the industry. The recent proposal of the DoE to bring ship breaking from the list of “orange” category to “red” for the purpose of imposing stricter regulations has also not materialized.

In a writ petition (3916 of 2006) challenging the legality of the entry of Green Peace listed ship named MT Alfaship into the territorial waters of Bangladesh, a division bench of the High Court comprising Mr. Justice Awlad Ali and Mr. Justice Zinat Ara observed that the government should take immediate steps to frame necessary rule and regulation so that hazardous ships that are threat to the environment of the country may be prevented from entering into territorial waters of the country in any manner. Mysteriously, the Department of Shipping has opted to formulate non-binding policy to regulate the operation despite observation from the Highest Court to frame binding rules.

Legal Actions against Unregulated Ship Breaking
* Writ Petition No. 2911 of 2003 demanded environmental clearance for ship dismantling eventually resulted in proposal for changing SB from category 'orange' to 'red'
* Writ Petition No. 23 of 2008 demanded complete statement on accidents, causes, preventive modes taken, compensation paid and basis of computation
* Writ Petition No. 3916 of 2006 (Alfa ship-SS Norway) Resulted in Court's observation for the government to immediately frame rules.

One may wonder about such leniency and reluctance of the law implementing agencies in punishing the polluting industry of ship breaking. The government answer perhaps is simple: the ship breaking industry supplies 80% of the iron for the market. It is an irony to see that the government is sticking to such an observation even in the policy it is proposing when the fact is that the BSBA itself has given newspaper advertisements (Daily Prothom Alo dated 31 January, 2008) maintaining that they supply only 25%-30% of the total iron demand of the country. Why is then the government overstating the number? The nation must find out an answer to such bias of the government in order to get the proper regulatory direction in regulating the industry. If it is only 25% that this industry supplies and the rest 75% is met from import of iron scrap, then the search for alternative gets simpler. Why should the country loose so many lives and lease out its fragile coastal area for indiscriminate pollution when alternative is viable?

Few months back a high powered government committee inquired into the sudden rise in the price of iron- the supply of which seems to be the only reason why the industry is allowed to undermine all legal provisions. For some inapprehensible reason, the committee has kept its report “confidential” at a time when the government has in principle approved the ordinance on Right to Information. Perhaps the government is following the footstep of the ship breakers who deny access to human rights activists and even news media to their yards!

It is high time that the government spells out measures to be immediately taken by the ship breakers to avoid any loss of life and any further contamination of the environment. The business must operate in a transparent way and to ensure that an impartial fact finding mission needs to work to define the parameters. The government has accepted the Basel Guidelines and the ILO guidelines on ship breaking, but has not developed the regulatory regime in line.

It is crucial that the government wastes no more time and immediately embarks upon developing rules to bind the defiant industry, as has been observed by the High Court.

The writer is the head of BELA, Director of Programmes, an advocate in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.


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