Bangladeshi Shipbreakers



Just a decade or two ago, decommissioned freighter and tanker ships were broken up in their home countries, in dry docks with strict health and safety, environmental and worker rights standards.

Today in Bangladesh, these giant ships are driven up onto the beaches of the Bay of Bengal, where some 40,000 shipbreakers—some just teenaged children—toil 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, paid just 30 to 45 cents an hour, to do one of the most dangerous jobs in the world in which it is common for workers to be maimed or killed.  The shipbreakers live in crowded, primitive hovels, sleeping on the concrete floor.  They are day laborers, with no contract and no rights.  Any workers trying to organize a union to protect their legal rights are immediately fired and blacklisted.  And the Bay of Bengal is also now an environmental disaster.

In November 2012, the Institute traveled to Bangladesh where we collaborated with Australian television on another documentary film.  Just weeks before, a slight, 15-year-old boy, Khorshed, was crushed to death when a huge metal slab fell on him.  It took 30 workers to lift the slab.  Khorshed worked the night shift, from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m.  They paid him 30 cents an hour.  We met with and filmed shipbreakers who were paralyzed, unable to move or sit up due to spinal cord injuries from accidents that should and could easily have been prevented.  In a remote village in the North Bengal region, we met with scores of young former shipbreakers who were missing hands, feet, legs, fingers and toes.

For the last five years, the Institute—with our office and staff on the ground in Chittagong—has provided bi-weekly educational training for over 500 senior shipbreakers, who in turn are educating hundreds more of the younger shipbreakers on health and safety and workers’ rights.  With solidarity from international unions, the Institute has been able to provide hundreds of workers with safety gear including hard hats, goggles, welders’ vests and gloves.  Together the Institute and the workers themselves have developed a solid network of contacts in almost all of the over-100 shipbreaking yards.  The long term plan is to accompany Bangladesh’s 40,000 shipbreaking workers in their struggle to win their legal right to organize an independent union and to bargain collectively for a living wage and health and safety protections.

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