The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, which will enter into force in 2025, should be strengthened to ensure a safe and sustainable ship recycling industry, the groups said. Countries should adhere to existing international labor and environmental laws regulating the disposal of ships, including the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal.
The report draws on interviews with 45 shipbreaking workers and workers’ relatives and 10 doctors and experts on ship recycling and Bangladesh environmental and labor laws, as well as analysis of public shipping databases, company financial reports and websites, Bangladesh maritime import records, and leaked import certificates. Human Rights Watch wrote to 21 companies seeking a response to our findings, including shipbreaking yards, shipping companies, flag registries, and cash buyers as well as the International Maritime Organization and four Bangladeshi government agencies.
Bangladesh is a top destination for scrapping ships. Since 2020, approximately 20,000 Bangladeshi workers have ripped apart more than 520 ships, far more tonnage than in any other country.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has described shipbreaking as one of the world’s most dangerous jobs. Workers consistently said that they are not provided with adequate protective equipment, training, or tools to safely do their jobs. Workers described using their socks as gloves to avoid burning their hands as they cut through molten steel, wrapping their shirts around their mouths to avoid inhaling toxic fumes, and carrying chunks of steel barefoot.
Workers described injuries from falling chunks of steel or being trapped inside a ship when it caught fire or pipes exploded. Lack of accessible emergency medical care at shipyards meant that, in many cases, workers were forced to carry their injured coworkers from the beach to the road and find a private vehicle to take them to a hospital. In Bangladesh, the life expectancy for men in the shipbreaking industry is 20 years lower than the average. As a 31-year-old worker said, “If I am distracted for even a moment in the place where I work, I could die immediately.”
A 2019 survey of shipbreaking workers estimated that 13 percent of the workforce are children. Researchers noted, however, that this number jumps to 20 percent during illegal night shifts. Many workers interviewed began working at about age 13.
Shipbreaking workers said that they are often denied breaks or sick leave, even when they are injured on the job, violating Bangladesh labor laws. In most cases, workers are paid a fraction of what they are legally entitled to under Bangladesh’s minimum wage regulations for shipbreaking workers. Workers are rarely given formal contracts, which means that yard owners can cover up worker deaths and injuries. When workers attempt to unionize or protest conditions, they are fired and harassed.
Shipyards in Bangladesh use a method called “beaching” in which ships sail full steam onto the beach during high tide to be taken apart directly on the sand instead of using a dock or contained platform. Since the work is done directly on the sand, the worksite itself is full of hazards and toxic waste is dumped directly into the sand and sea. Toxic materials from the vessels, including asbestos, is handled without protective equipment and in some cases sold on the second-hand market, affecting health in surrounding communities.