In a recent revelation that has sent shockwaves through the international community, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that European maritime companies are scrapping their old ships on the beaches of Bangladesh. The report, published by Al Jazeera, focuses on the southeastern region of Sitakunda, highlighting the dangerous and polluting conditions that have led to the deaths of workers involved in the shipbreaking process. However, what has not been widely reported is the alarming issue of nuclear-contaminated ships also being dumped in Bangladesh, adding another layer of ethical and environmental concern to this already complicated issue.
Sitakunda beaches in Bangladesh have gained notoriety as one of the world’s largest shipbreaking yards. This area is not just a hub for shipbreaking but also fuels the South Asian country’s booming construction industry, providing it with a cheap source of steel. According to the same Al Jazeera report, European firms have sent over 520 vessels to this site since 2020. These ships are taken apart by thousands of workers who lack proper safety gear, leading to a high incidence of accidents and fatalities. A Bangladeshi environmental group, Young Power in Social Action, has reported that at least 62 workers have lost their lives in accidents at these shipbreaking yards since 2019.
The financial dynamics of this industry in Bangladesh are unique and contribute to the problem. Unlike in most countries, where companies have to pay for the safe disposal of their old and hazardous ships, buyers in Bangladesh actually pay these companies to have their toxic and, as newly revealed, also nuclear-contaminated ships dumped on their shores. This creates a perverse incentive for companies, particularly American corporations, to continue this unethical practice.
While the issue of toxic ships has gained some media attention, but still the dumping of nuclear-contaminated ships has been largely overlooked. These ships pose an even greater risk to the workers who dismantle them and to the environment. The lack of reporting on this issue raises questions about the transparency and comprehensiveness of investigations conducted by organizations like HRW.
Our sources have revealed that while Eastern European companies may not be the usual suspects in discussions about the shipbreaking industry, they are deeply implicated in these unethical practices, including the dumping of not just toxic but also nuclear-contaminated ships. These companies often manage to secure ship fitness certificates by paying nominal amounts to corrupt authority officials. This allows them to bypass stringent regulations, thereby facilitating the transport of these hazardous and nuclear-contaminated ships to Bangladesh for dismantling. This practice is particularly ironic and troubling, given that European nations showing their “very special concerns” about human rights violations in Bangladesh. Yet, they seem to turn a blind eye to the crimes against humanity and environmental degradation committed by their very own corporations and citizens. This glaring inconsistency exposes a double standard in how human rights and environmental concerns are addressed, depending on who the perpetrators are.
Our sources have also brought to light alarming health concerns among the shipbreaking workers in Bangladesh. Some workers have reported experiencing a burning sensation even when not working with any heating equipment. Between 2022 and 2023, 24 workers reportedly died under mysterious circumstances.
In conversations with a group of workers in their residential compounds, they shared harrowing accounts of their colleagues’ sudden and unexplained deaths. Khokan, a shipbreaking worker, died after experiencing extreme stomach ache and spitting blood. He succumbed to these symptoms within just two days and was subsequently buried in a local kabristan (Muslim graveyard).
Another worker, Aslom Miya, also died under mysterious conditions, suffering from extremely red eyes and bouts of vomiting before passing away within four days of exhibiting these symptoms.
Intriguingly, shipbreaking company owners claim to have no knowledge of workers by these names, raising further questions about the conditions under which these laborers are working and the potential cover-up of serious health hazards.
Companies involved in these practices are exploiting loopholes in international regulations to avoid responsibility. Julia Bleckner, an HRW researcher, stated that shipping companies should stop using these loopholes and take responsibility for safely and responsibly managing their waste. Workers have reported using their socks as gloves to avoid burns while cutting through molten steel and covering their mouths with shirts to avoid inhaling toxic fumes, as reported by Human Rights Watch.
Although Bangladeshi politicians are often at odds due to their differing political affiliations, a rare consensus seems to have emerged when it comes to the shipbreaking industry. Leaders from both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League, the country’s two major political parties, appear to be working hand in hand on this issue. This unusual alliance raises questions about the influence of the shipbreaking industry on local politics and suggests that the financial incentives may be too lucrative for politicians to ignore, regardless of their party lines. This collaboration between political rivals adds another layer of complexity to the ethical and environmental dilemmas posed by the shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh.
Local authorities and organizations in Bangladesh have a role to play in this as well. The Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association (BSBA), which represents yard owners, claims to be working on improving safety measures. However, Fazlul Kabir Mintu, coordinator for the Danish-funded Occupational Safety and Security Information Center, stated that yard owners operate in a “climate of impunity” due to their outsized influence in local politics. This was further corroborated by reports from the OSHE Foundation charity that works with shipbreaking laborers.
Many ships sent to Sitakunda contain asbestos, a toxic substance linked to lung cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Repon Chowdhury, executive director of the OSHE Foundation, revealed that workers are forced to handle asbestos with their bare hands. His organization found that 33 out of 110 shipbreaking workers tested positive for exposure to this toxic substance, leading to varying degrees of lung damage.
The shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh is fraught with ethical and environmental concerns. While organizations like HRW have started to shed light on some of these issues, though they have failed to address the nuclear contamination, there is a need for more comprehensive investigations that also consider the dumping of nuclear-contaminated ships. The unique financial incentives in Bangladesh make it a hotspot for such unethical practices, involving not just European but also American corporations.