Workers anticipate better times as the government takes steps to bring a growing sector up to date in terms of health and safety.
Mohammad Shahed, 37, is a plate cutter who has been working at Chittagong's Kabir Shipbreaking Yard for the past decade. He came to Chittagong from Chandpur with his father after the family lost their land and home to a devastating cyclone in 1991.
"At an automotive workshop here, I learned how to work on machines," Shahed told Khabar South Asia. "But as they did not pay adequately, I had to come to the shipbreaking sector."
He currently makes Tk 40 ($0.50) per hour. Along with his wife's monthly income as a garment factory worker at Chittagong Export processing zone, they can maintain the expenses of their family, including their two children.
Around 200,000 workers earn their livelihood in the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong. As the industry continues to burgeon, the quality of their lives stands to improve. Meanwhile, the government and some shipyards are beginning to address safety, health and environmental issues that have blighted the sector.
An industry with 'potential'
Recycled ships provide nearly 70% of the scrap metals Bangladesh needs for its construction and real estate sectors. Furniture and other items are also recycled.
Last year, Bangladesh remained the world's second largest shipbreaker after Pakistan, followed by India.
In 2012, Bangladesh's 70 shipbreaking yards dismantled 260 ships weighing 3.1m tonnes in all, according to the Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association (BSBA), which puts the industry's annual worth at $1.2 billion.
"Our workers are also quite content as, despite being mostly unskilled, they receive the highest wages compared to other industries in Bangladesh, according to the Ministry of Labour and Employment," A.K.M. Nazmul Islam, secretary of BSBA, told Khabar.
Bangladesh in 2011 recognised the sector as a "separate industry, considering its huge potential and economic benefits", and placed it under the Ministry of Industries.
Better standards mean more opportunity
But as the industry's growth picks up, experts say it is becoming more urgent to address longstanding concerns.
"The sector has a global opportunity, as it is labor intensive and contributes largely to the economy. But adequate measures need to be taken to address the environmental concerns related to it," Mustafizur Rahman, economist and Executive Director of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in Dhaka, told Khabar.
Most ships contain an average of 15,000 pounds of asbestos, and 10 to 100 tonnes of lead paint. As they are dismantled on the seashore, environmentalists fear these pollutants, along with solid waste, are dumped into the sea.
"Dry docking of end-of-life ships before dismantling is still necessary in the sector. Also, the waste from broken down ships should be shipped back to the designated country," said Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA).
Also, workers are exposed to asbestos, mercury, arsenic and other toxic materials. As long as such labour and environmental threats remain unaddressed, "the sector will not be commercially viable", Hasan said.
With those issues in mind, the government is planning an oversight board to develop the country's shipbuilding and shipbreaking industries.
Speaking at a June 19th roundtable titled "Promoting Sustainable Finance in Ship Recycling Industry in Bangladesh", Industries Minister Dilip Barua said that a law to set up such a board was nearing enactment.
A draft has "already been prepared based on the views and opinions of stakeholders and experts," the minister said, hoping the move would promote "green industrialisation with zero risk, as well as zero pollution."
Workers are now being trained in relevant skills and in workplace safety, and receiving safety gear, according to BSBA.
Muhammad Ali Shahin, Bangladesh co-ordinator of NGO Shipbreaking Platform, an international coalition working to clean up the industry, said most shipbreaking yards now pay compensation for workplace accidents and deaths.
"This was hardly paid by yard-owners even two years back," he said.
Source: Khabar South Asia. By S. Chowdhury. 14 August 2013