European companies are dumping their old ships on the beaches of Bangladesh, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). These ships are being broken down by workers in dangerous and polluting conditions, leading to the loss of lives. The Sitakunda beaches in southeastern Bangladesh have become one of the world’s largest shipbreaking yards, supplying steel for the country’s construction industry. Since 2020, European firms have sent 520 vessels to this site, where workers dismantle the ships without proper protective gear.
HRW researcher Julia Bleckner criticized these companies for prioritizing profit over the safety and well-being of Bangladeshi workers and the environment. Workers have reported using improvised protection like using socks as gloves and shirts to cover their mouths to avoid burns and inhaling toxic fumes. They often work barefoot, risking injuries from falling steel chunks or accidents inside the ships, such as fires or exploding pipes.
According to HRW’s report, at least 62 workers have died in accidents at Sitakunda’s shipbreaking yards since 2019. The Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association (BSBA), representing yard owners, claims to be improving safety measures ahead of a new international convention on safe and environmentally sound shipbreaking set to be enforced in 2025. However, critics like Fazlul Kabir Mintu, coordinator for the Danish-funded Occupational Safety and Security Information Center, argue that yard owners operate with impunity due to their influence in local politics, leading to inadequate attention to worker safety.
Moreover, many of the ships sent to Sitakunda contain asbestos, a substance linked to life-threatening diseases like lung cancer. Despite the risks, workers are forced to handle asbestos with their bare hands. The exposure to this toxic substance has led to severe lung damage, with some workers succumbing to the effects, while others suffer in misery.
In summary, European companies are contributing to the hazardous working conditions and environmental pollution in Bangladeshi shipbreaking yards, endangering the lives of workers and the local environment in the process.