The current COVID-19 pandemic is affecting workers globally, including those employed in the shipbreaking sector. In Bangladesh, authorities have imposed strict lockdowns which have particularly impacted the most vulnerable part of the workforce: the migrant workers. Deprived of accessing the meagre government support which is offered to local workers, and in most cases not having been paid their March salaries, migrant workers have furthermore been unable to return to their home villages as all public transport is closed. Forced to continue to pay rent for the unsanitary and improper accommodation near the shipbreaking yards, the migrant workers, mainly from the Northwest of Bangladesh, have been left to starve.
Given this unprecedented emergency situation, we decided to act. Thanks to the financial support received via our call for donations, our local member organisation OSHE Foundation managed to distribute food and personal protective equipment items to 130 of the most deprived shipbreaking workers’ families. Each family, comprising at least four members, received a package containing rice, potatoes, wheat flour, dal (dried, split pulses), cooking oil, salt, sugar, tea, potato, onion, chana dal (chickpeas), moori (puffed rice), one re-usable face mask and hand soap, ensuring subsistence for at least 10 to 15 days.
“Work has been stopped for many days. We are having a hard time with our families. I can't get any help from anywhere. Such support from OSHE at this time has saved us. We will be able to spend the next days in peace”, said a worker named Quddus.
Krishna, a worker who lost his leg due to an accident at the shipbreaking yards, said: “I can't work due to my injury. My wife runs the household by doing some sewing work. It goes without saying that there is no work now because of Corona. I have two children. I already had to borrow some money to support the family. Now, I don't have to worry about food for the next 15 days. This is a happy day for my family”.
Shafi, one of the many victims of asbestos exposure, added: “I am suffering from asbestosis. I am the only one earning in the family. I can’ t always work because of my condition. I was feeling helpless in the present situation. This help from OSHE at such a time has saved me and my family”.
Whilst most of the shipbreaking yards in Chattogram remain closed, some have re-started cutting operations. According to local trade unions, these yards are not paying properly and the government assistance which local workers have received is negligible compared to the need.
The NGO Shipbreaking Platform campaigns for safe and clean recycling and believes that ship owners have the responsibility to ensure that neither workers, nor the environment, and the communities that depend upon it, are harmed. The situation at the shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh is particularly dire: the many accidents - fatal and serious injuries - are telling of the appalling working conditions. The fact that workers are not paid or provided support during the COVID-19 lockdown is also telling of a completely lacking safety net, both from employers' and government level.
Once again, we express our gratitude for the support received via the donations, which made possible the distribution of emergency food assistance to more than during this unprecedented and challenging period.