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Danger and threat in Chittagong shipyard
BdChronicle Special Feature:
Mohamed Edris’s life as he knew it in the Bangladeshi ship recycling yards ended at 11.30am on Saturday 11 April 2015. The 38-year-old metal cutter had been working with 100 others on the 19,600-tonne container ship Eurus London at the Ferdous Steel Corporation shipyard in Chittagong when catastrophe struck.
His task had been to cut away the huge 40-tonne propeller with a blow torch. Alarm bells rang, he said, when he saw that a large metal platform had been placed below the propeller to stop it falling into the mud on the beach.
“I told the supervisor and two others that it was dangerous because it could bounce back when the propeller fell. I told them I could not do it, but they insisted that I did,” he said. He obeyed and nearly died. The propeller broke free, hit the metal plate and sprung back as he predicted. It sliced off his left leg below the knee, blinded him in one eye and nearly broke his back, says The Guardian in an article published on 2 December.
The yard paid for his hospital treatment, gave him Tk 125,000 (£1,142) compensation and Tk 460 (£4.32) a week for nine months. Now he, and the seven family members he supported, rely on handouts from friends. But in a legal test case Zodiac Maritime, the London-based shipping company that managed the Eurus London until it was sold for scrap, could be held responsible, the article adds.
In a case that could see British, American and European shipowners and managers being made liable for the many deaths and accidents that take place every year in Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani shipbreaking yards, UK law firm Leigh Day is suing Zodiac for negligence on behalf of Edris. It claims that Zodiac, which manages about 150 large ships and is owned by Eyal Ofer, son of the late Israeli shipping magnate Sammy Ofer, should have known how dangerous the Chittagong breaking yards were when the vessel was sold for scrap to GMS, a US-based “cash buyer” or middle man.
“Zodiac knew, or ought to have known, that there was a foreseeable risk of physical harm to workers when they allowed their vessel to be sold to a Chittagong yard through a cash buyer,” says Martyn Day, a director of Leigh Day.
New legal action is needed, say environmentalists and unions, because of the steady number of deaths and injuries to workers. On one level, shipbreaking is one of the world’s “greenest” industries, with every nut, bolt and sheet of metal on a ship being recycled. It also employs hundreds of thousands of people in some of the world’s poorest countries. But, say critics, owners knowingly cause suffering to workers by sending their ships to be recycled on Asian beaches. British-based companies have sent 28 ships to be beached in the past two years, including six to Chittagong. Two vessels waiting to be dismantled in that yard last week were managed by Zodiac.
“Shipowners shield themselves from responsibility through the use of cash buyers. These scrap dealers sell off the ships for the highest price offered,” says Ingvild Jenssen, director of Shipbreaking Platform, a Brussels-based coalition of environmental, human rights and labour groups. “All ships that end up on the beaches of Bangladesh, Pakistan or India pass through cash buyers, and all sales to cash buyers are clearly scrap deals where the higher price paid indicates that the vessel will be beached.”
More than 800 large ships are broken up each year, the vast majority on Asian beaches. Owners can earn an extra $1m to $4m (£740,000 to £2.96m) per ship when selling to Asian yards via cash buyers, instead of opting for recycling yards with higher standards, says Jenssen. “No one forces the industry to send ships to be dismantled there. They choose to send them,” she says.
Edris, who came to Chittagong aged 14 and who, until his accident, worked six 14-hour shifts a week, earning £3.20 a day, is one of thousands of workers who have been injured in the yards since they appeared in the 1960s. There are no official statistics but labour groups say that in the past 10 years there have been more than 125 deaths, according to The Guardian.
Chittagong is now the world’s largest shipbreaking centre, last year recycling 230 ships and generating 10m tonnes of steel - up to 60% of all the steel used in Bangladesh. Most of the workers migrate from rural areas. Hired out in gangs, they live in overcrowded shacks close to the yards. The Ferdous yard is like many others. Hidden behind high metal gates, it slopes down to the Bay of Bengal. It can take months for young men, wielding only sledgehammers and metal cutters, to dismantle a large vessel.
“Chittagong is the cheapest place to scrap ships but the price is suffering. Nine men have died here this year. Nobody feels responsible for these men’s lives,” says Muhammed Ali Shahin, Bangladesh coordinator of Shipbreaking Platform. The law offers little protection, he says. “EU laws stop EU-flagged ships being broken up on Asian beaches, but because owners can easily ‘reflag’ ships it has little strength.”
Pressed by labour groups, the UN’s International Maritime Organisation passed the Hong Kong Convention (HKC) in 2009. This demands that ship owners and states do not pose a risk to human health, safety and the environment. But, says Shipbreaking Platform, it does not stop the beaching of vessels, which is blamed for most accidents, and it is unlikely to come into force for years because it requires 15 states, and 40% of world merchant shipping, to have signed up.
“The industry is moving to adopt Hong Kong standards,” says Nikos Mikelis, a non-executive director of GMS. “There is a good likelihood of the convention entering into force within the next five to seven years. Ratifying and reaching the HKC targets will not be too difficult.” He argues that groups such as Shipbreaking Platform are naive and, by demanding the end of beaching, are endangering the livelihoods of workers in some of the world’s poorest countries.
He does see progress. “Japan and India are investing $100m in upgrades. Forty-one yards out of 120 in Alang, India, now meet HKC standards and 15 others are moving towards safer and cleaner work. But in Bangladesh only one yard [PHP Shipbreaking] meets international standards.”
Mikelis says the major shipping companies such as Maersk now have arrangements with individual yards. “The industry wants improvement but it needs to invest to improve,” he says.
In the case of Zodiac, Martyn Day argues that the company knew the methods involved in dismantling vessels in Chittagong, yet it sold the Eurus London on in the full knowledge that it would be broken up in unsafe conditions. “They had a duty not to sell vessels to Bangladesh shipyards via their contractors or cash buyers,” he says. “Zodiac sold it to a cash buyer in the knowledge it would be dismantled in unsafe conditions.”
In a statement to the Observer, Zodiac said the accident occurred four months after the ship had been sold to a third-party buyer. As a result, it said: “We deny any liability for the injuries suffered by Edris and we dispute the claim.”
It added: “The yard where Edris was employed was not Zodiac’s contractor and Zodiac did not select the yard used to dismantle the vessel. Zodiac has no control over the working practices at shipbreaking yards. The claim seeks to extend the law of negligence beyond any recognised boundaries. It is the law of Bangladesh which applies to this case.”
The impact of an injury on workers’ families is immense. “Edris provided for seven people,” said one man who knows him. “He has no savings. He is angry. He is now wholly reliant on the generosity of friends and family. His children have become scared of him because he cries a lot and screams in pain.”
Edris said: “I feel like a dead man. I have no hope. I will never be able to go back to work. I have steel plates in my body and I can only walk on sticks, I am in constant pain. I want to open a shop, but that needs 500,000 Bdt.
“I have seen many men killed and injured. It is very dangerous work. I tell people not to work there.”
(This article, has been published in The Guardian recently)