Bangladesh Ship Breakers

Death, Destruction And Dollar Bills: The Daily Strife Of Ship-Breakers

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Bangladesh Ship Breakers
Just a small snapshot at ship-breaking life in Bangladesh

The ship-breaking industry attracts fierce attention, notorious for the grievous injuries and fatalities of its workers. In nations such as Bangladesh, it has developed haphazardly. The ship-breaking yards operate with little planning and deplorable working conditions.

Once sold, tankers and cargo ships are driven onto the shores; ill-equipped and often underage workers break these apart for scrap. By drawing on classical approaches to ethics, we consider the industry’s complex implications.

“If I don’t work, our family won’t survive.” Muhammed Abdul Qadir, ship-breaker

Responsibility disintegrates as soon as the ships are sold for scrap. This primarily occurs in regions of the world where labour costs are cheapest, and where health and safety regulations and labour laws are almost non-existent.

The disposal of ships in these areas results in people finding otherwise non-existent work. Without the ship-breaking industry, impoverished locals and migrants would be deprived of this way to engage in the productive economy. By companies disposing of ships unviable for maritime use, all of the scrap material is harvested – contributing to Bangladesh’s fledgling steel industry (e.g. 90% of its iron consumption).The importance of this industry to the economic situation of the nation is evidenced by the 10 billion Bangladeshi taka (£86 million) generated in tax revenue each year.

From a utilitarian standpoint, the industry could be ethically justified by its sheer boost to the nation’s industrial sector, by means of monetary gains, and the harvesting of resources. To rely on a utilitarian approach to ethics, the mere existence of the industry could be viewed as creating the greatest good for the greatest number. The tax revenue generated could ideally be used to fund social schemes, such as improved housing and sanitation with improvements in national infrastructure. Considering market competition, there are claims that more stringent regulations could make costs prohibitively expensive for scrappage companies which could simply move elsewhere, taking the employment and economic benefits with them and leaving the local workforce destitute.

Death Is Just Around The Corner
Death is just around the corner

Conversely, such an application of this ethical justification recognises ‘good’ only in economic terms, and acts to obscure the exploitation of the workers involved. The key component of utilitarian theory is that an action is ethically justified only if the summation of pleasure is greater than the summation of suffering. This leads to the issue of quantifying pleasure and suffering. Is it fair to disregard the horrendous suffering experienced by the ship-breakers for the economic impact the industry bears in their society?

“If you die in the field, no problem.” Mohammed Murad, ship-breaker

Mohammed Murad worked in the ship-breaking industry for 10 years. That was until an incident in 2010, where whilst conducting his normal cutting duty, a 20-ton blade of disfigured ship sheared from directly above, crushing one of his legs. Lucky to escape with his life, Mohammed sought compensation from the yard he worked for. They refused. Fortunately for Mohammed, an environmental lawyer was paid for by CNN, enabling him to get some compensation. Accidents such as this are not a rare occurrence, and unfortunately, nearly all of the decrepit, disfigured and dead don’t have the financial resources to get the compensation they deserve. Mohammed’s case is just one example from a plethora of cases where workers sustain serious injury by means of structural collapse, explosions and poisoning.  The average lifespan of workers is just 40 years old.

Many of these injuries and deaths could be avoided if a culture of health and safety, as in the developed world, was promoted – allowing workers to conduct their jobs with sufficient equipment, training and safety precautions.

We cannot avoid that the workers at the final stages of the ship’s life-cycle are vulnerable. Care ethics presents a framework to provide due care to all relevant stakeholders. As the relationships between stakeholders is complex and disrupted, ethical responsibility is severed, particularly by the sale of the ships in decommissioning. An approach incorporating care ethics values concern for the people at risk, and necessitates proactive measures to minimise this. For example, the ships contain large amounts of hazardous material such as asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB’s), which are carcinogenic and associated with long term health effects. Such risk can be evaluated and managed accordingly. For example, engineers could implement better containment of these dangerous materials and substances, making ship-breaking a less dangerous affair.

Here, we still acknowledge that many risks cannot be mitigated by ship owners, for example the poor practices locally which contribute to the majority of injuries to workers on the yards. The local implementation of measures to ensure workers are correctly trained, provided with the correct PPE equipment and compensated adequately is needed. One such method is oversight by the shipping companies conducting business only with yards that practice to safer standards. Examples of this can be seen already, such as with the introduction of the EU’s waste shipment regulation, but so far only mixed results have been achieved, as on the 15th March 2018, Seatrade was fined and two executives were banned from the industry for violating the EU regulations.

Conclusion: What can be done?

This is a multifaceted problem, with no clear-cut solution. The socioeconomic ramifications of applying tighter regulations are powerful, with potential to lead to business moving elsewhere, severely hindering Bangladesh’s economy. However, the shipping industry has a duty and professional responsibility to acknowledge the high likelihood their ships will be decommissioned in these regions, so safety precautions and procedures must be implemented. A lack of concern for safety by the industry leads to needless loss of life. Whilst it’s hard to agree upon the exact changes to be made, it is undeniable that there must be action.

32 thoughts on “Death, Destruction And Dollar Bills: The Daily Strife Of Ship-Breakers

  1. An interesting article that raises awareness of the hardship and dangers of life, that many of us in the developed world never encounter and are often ignorant or not informed all together.

    We in the developed world take our comfortable lives for granted, if this was reported on the news, most people are now desensitised to situations like this that it would soon be forgotten about.

    The problem for me is a collective lack of empathy throughout humanity, short term solution phone around a few shipping construction companies, make them aware and ask for second hand hard hats/high vis jackets/eye protection

  2. Excellent article, highlighting another industry which doesn’t consider future issues of scrappage.

  3. Your article states that ‘For example, the ships contain large amounts of hazardous material such as asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB’s), which are carcinogenic and associated with long term health effects.’ Therefore it is clear that the March 2009 Bangladesh’s Supreme Court ruling, that ships entering the country for decommissioning must be “pre-cleaned” in line with The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal is being disregarded in pursuit of profit.

    The long term effects on the Bangladesh coastline, its water and soil, may well be catastrophic for the people of Bangladesh as well as the short term effects on exploited workers such as Mohammed.

    Ethics clearly come a poor second to cash!

  4. There are many arguments here that could be debated for years about do we let developing economies learn by themselves or do we help/guide/impose Western ways upon them. However, fundamentally for me is the matter that there are many needless deaths. People are dying that do not need to. The West must certainly hold a responsibility to offer help and strong guidance to Bangladesh and push our own companies to use more responsible breakers at the end of a ships life to push for greater H&S for those actually doing the breaking, the recycling that we in the West seem to value so highly.

  5. Really interesting to read all the comments on this article – good to see that the general consensus is that something must be done – we just needs some more ideas on the what!!!

  6. An eye opening article that should cause many to think about fundamental issues and drivers for change

  7. The ship-breaking industry described here needs to move to a place where the importance of trusting relationships with clients, employees, suppliers and the community is foremost. The delta here is massive.

  8. “The Untold Story of the Ship-Breakers”; I see a National Geography documentary to be made with this tittle if it hasn’t be done already! Kudos on selecting such an interesting topic! As outlined by the authors, this is definitely among the few problems we face without a foreseeable solution. With an average life expectancy of 40 years, it is undeniable that Bangladeshi workers are facing poor work conditions but increasing the regulations and standards, means the industry will simply move to another developing country as they always do.
    Maybe the only possible solution would be to convince the International Maritime Organisation to forcefully enforce ship breaking standards onto ship owners but would this be ethical? Also Bangladesh has very recently moved up from low developing country (LDC) to developing country(DC) status. Chances are this rise in status might be able to slowly eradicate the harmful working condition these workers are currently facing as Bangladesh might be able to absorb the cost to increase the working standard in the industry.

  9. This article was very eye opening and definitely sheds light on a topic which is not discussed a lot in society.

    Even if Bangladesh naturally develops higher safety standards at their own pace this problem will still remain if there are any underdeveloped nations willing to take on the work (which certainly is a possibility). This would simply shift the problem to another nation instead of solving it.

    I believe a better solution would be for engineers and ship building companies to consider the end of a ship’s life more. This is already something that developed nations could implement through new legislation and would certainly help with the problem in the future.

  10. A very interesting read with the additional comments adding more insight into a complex situation. Personally, I don’t think we can put much weight into the argument that we in the western world not so many years ago operated industries with little or no protection for workers. There wasn’t the knowledge then that there is now and I don’t think it is right that the safety knowledge we have now is not put forward for the better good of these workers. That said it is also hard to see how they can be dissuaded from earning a living anyway they can. As I see it far more needs to be done by the ship builders/owners and those utilising the scrap metal – that way the appropriate measures could be taken ensuring a safer environment for the workers but causing limited disruption to the overall economic gain for Bangladesh.

  11. Fantastic article, shedding light on a very difficult ethical dilemma that I didn’t know existed.

    On the one hand,industry offers huge financial gain for the country, but is it really worth the abhorrent exploitation of the workers?

    Whilst there is no clear cut solution, it is evident that there must be some change in the industry as a whole.

    We have to weigh the well-being of the workers against the well-being produced by the economic benefits from the industry.

  12. An interesting article, it raises some really important issues. Although I can see that the industry is critical for bringing money into Bangladesh, I believe that the safety issues for workers is unacceptable. I think that there should be more regulation and health and safety to ensure the workers are safe. This is simple exploitation of workers who cannot afford to say no to the job.

  13. Very interesting article, I had no idea about the shipbreaking issue before reading this article. Hard to say who needs to take action. Perhaps a halfway point needs to be met where the safety regulations are increased, but not quite to the level that we have in the UK. That way more workers can be protected, but not at the expense of the economic development in Bangladesh.

  14. Interesting article, highlighting the tension between needing to earn to live and the significant health and safety risks.

  15. The article highlights a very real ethical dilemma and I’m sure it’s not limited to ship breaking. What can be done? – moving forwards should all new ship builds have a decommissioning plan? However, given ships have an average life span of 25-40 there will be far too many in circulation coming to their end of life that this potential solution won’t address – so then what? Should ship owners have responsibility for ensuring their ships are only scrapped in properly managed environments? Should those industries that buy the scrapped metal take on some of the responsibility and only buy the scrap from safely managed resources? And what then happens to the worker? No easy solution but maybe a combination of solutions can start to help address what is a serious issue.

    1. The ethical debate is interesting because different conclusions can be reached based framework used to evaluate it. Through the prism of duty ethics, it is obvious that ships should not be scrapped in the present manner as the conditions the workers tolerate violate the ‘moral law’. However, given the industry has grown around the present regulations this would lead to mass job losses and the suffering of those workers as a consequence, which is not considered through duty ethics.

      Framing the argument around the consequences, through utilitarianism, suggests that the status quo should be maintained as the greatest good is provided to the overall Bangladeshi economy through the potential for future economic growth and the associated benefits of an advanced economy. Obviously this is little more than speculation as the future is hard to predict and there are certainly no guarantees of future prosperity.

      Although it is impossible to quantify the future consequences of decisions made today it is clear that the hazardous materials being used to construct ships will have to be removed in the future. Using care ethics seeks to establish a relationship between the those who build the ships and those who dismantle them, the ship builders would make a decision based on the implications it would have on others further down the line. This framework is problematic as it was originally constructed around close relations before being expanded to other contexts. For the shipping industry this moral framework relies on the ship builders having an empathetic relationship with those people on the other side of the world decades into the future.

  16. An interesting article raising the ethics question which is not isolated to the shipping industry where cheap labour and poor standards can be exploited.
    The greed of major Corporations and the pressure for profit inevitably leads to the exploitation of countries where there is scant care for the health and wellbeing of individuals. If there was to be a change in the protection of rights of individuals in Bangladesh the problem will move on to the next country with poverty and no protection of rights for individuals
    Where are the engineered solutions to this .. new materials, decommissioning built into the design to minimize the risk of exposure

  17. A common trait of LEDC’s is that their main economic growth comes in the primary sector, however this is the least profitable sector to work in as there is normally an abundance in the raw materials that drives their selling prices down. To become more profitable, there needs to be a shift into the secondary sector of the economy producing final products sold to consumers.

    The problem is that there is little comparable macro infrastructure compared to more developed countries, so it is dampening the ability for other sectors to grow within the country thus causing there to be a small aggregate supply for products in the economy as consumers have little disposable income to spend, creating a cycle that is hard to get out of.

    The best was to get out of this problem is to continue working the way they are (with an annual GDP growth rate of 7.1% which is high compared to MEDCs) and use the revenue that is generated to invest in the macro infrastructure in the economy (such as transportation and education), which will allow the workers to become more skilled and therefore productive and then the products will become more available to a wider range of consumers that should in turn increase the demand for the products.
    For Bangladesh, it can be argued that their population is their most valuable factor of production with a population of 163 million people so the government investing in their workers I believe would be their most effective solution to grow out of their economic problem and improve the standards of living for the population.

    1. I appreciate your comments which approach the issue with a broader understanding of the different industry sectors economically. It is an interesting point to emphasise public infrastructure as an avenue for improving the lives and prospects of the workers/population of this developing nation. While I don’t digress wrt the benefits of a domestic policy (the Bangladeshi government investing revenue garnered from the shipbreaking industry in macro infrastructure), it is a diversion from the issue at hand…. “Keep going as you are.”

      I agree with you that as engineers, if a commitment and focus is given to decommissioning at the design phase, then this may minimise the risk of exposure to harmful chemicals etc. In respect of blunt force injuries from metal wounds and poor equipment and practices, there are visible risks that cannot be accounted for by engineers. Without piercing corporate veils, responsibility cannot be attributed appropriately. Any profit extracted in this shipbreaking industry as it currently operates is an insult and devaluation of the workers exploited. The harm and loss of life is enabled by this set of relations – alongside the economic benefits. These two are difficult to reconcile. Unfortunately, ubiquitous notions of economic orthodoxy and conceptions of the labour-desert relationship tied to a teleology obscure and perpetuate the violence. Violence is harm which is avoidable. The harm here is avoidable. Ok I’m being intentionally inflammatory but Jabba is hungry…

  18. Interesting article and I can relate since I come from India where labour and HSE laws are draconian too. As you have pointed out, increasing health and safety for the workers or designing risk lowering methods will cost the company leading to economic disadvantages to Bangladesh’s economy. One of the reasons why EU has had a better success rate was the adoption of these laws in a number of countries at the same time. Unfortunately, Bangladesh does not have that luxury. So how best to tackle this problem? There are no easy answers.

  19. This really is one of those issues with blame to go round twice over and not very many alternatives to the current situation that might help solve the issue. Does the blame lie with the western marine companies that sell off the ships, or with the companies that take on the disposed ships for scrap? With the governments of the countries that do not step in to control the situation or with the young teenager that decides to risk his life in such a place- to feed his family maybe, mind you-?

    The article raises a lot of relevant questions and you’re right. The issue has to be faced head on. Decisive steps and all that. It will be interesting to see how the various stakeholders respond over the next few months or years with articles like yours raising awareness on this issue. I didn’t know there was a ship disposal industry at all until tonight!

    1. A recurring theme is determining who bears responsibility for this exploitation. The various channels of trade, and the limited responsibility of corporations, noting the corporate veil, acts to obscure and perpetuate what I regard as “economic violence”. Upon considering where the blame lies, the fault is inherently structural and systemic when looking honestly at international trade and industry arrangements.

      I posit that 1) a lack of committed intellectual engagement and 2) an ideology that acts to obscure these forms of violence “in the name of no-one” where responsibility is severed and collectively dismissed, contributes to a political impotence, a political apathy and further debate with no consensus reached. For example, everyone here commenting that there is no clear answer.

      The political will is fragmented and the problems we observe but push aside of our neighbours seem insurmountable.

      You raise a good point in that the European Union has had a better success rate with the adoption of laws simultaneously in a number of countries. Arguments about supra-international bodies (supra CF inter) aside, without any overarching legal body that applies universally, international trade relations are anarchic. We imbue large scale institutions and law making bodies (such as the United Nations, WTO) with responsibility and defer to elites with defined positions and powers. We are mere rabbits, leave it to the foxes!

  20. The economic benefits of this industry can not be argued. Although the safety of the workers could be monitored better. It’s not clear whether these workers are forced to work there or if they are being employed of their own free will. If it is the latter then workers know they are entering a high risk job. Implementing our safety standards may not be a great idea since some countries rely on this heavily and put these workers out of work. A half measure would be the best solution where countries offers health and safety help. However nothing comes cheap in this world and could possibly be damaging to the countries who already rely on this industry heavily.

    1. I highly doubt workers or any one of sound mind would “choose” of their “own free will” to work in such conditions as elucidated above. Necessity is dictating these workers’ employment in this dangerous industry. The term “forced to work” is dubious upon realising that these individuals concerned lack alternatives and have material needs that can only be met through the sale of their labour, as they possess nothing else.

  21. The ship breakers do not have the luxury of choosing whether or not they want to risk their lives at work. For them it is a case as presented by the article of either risk dying at work or dying due to being unable to support themselves. This raises the ethical question: is it any better to impose regulation which will, if applied only in one country and not all countries, simply deprive the workers of a job which is potentially riskier than ship breaking itself? Arguable this removes the little choice they have and does not necessarily improve their lot. Would this make imposing regulations any better than allowing the current ship breaking practices to continue?

    How responsible are the users of the steel that comes from this industry? They drive the demand for the metal, can they be held responsible for where they sorce the materials from?

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      While researching the topic we came across an article that claimed that the majority of those working in the shipyards were actually migrants and that those native to the area avoided working at the shipyards because they more acutely aware of the risks involved, once at the shipyards migrants have no choice but to work with the pay and conditions that are dictated to them because they cannot afford to go home and may have relatives who also depend on that income.

      With regards to the recycled steel, as a nation Bangladesh is very poor in terms of natural resources that it can exploit, so that makes any other sources vitally important in reducing the reliance on foreign imported goods regardless of where it comes from.

    2. You raise an important question in respect of the imposition of regulation. Ultimately, the the imperative to maximise profit margins for companies (as entrenched in law/ideas of responsibility to shareholders) is likely to have the effect of the business being moved elsewhere. Here, we see how competition between nations (particularly developing nations) incites the undercutting of each other in competition for corporations conducting operations on their soil.
      With an abundance of workers reduced to mere bodies for labour, operations which ruthlessly disregard worker safety are bound to land the contract, if able to be run the most cheaply.
      What is this? It is substantive inequality masked under the label of formal equality in respect of trade relations. Bangladesh is not fiscally empowered to shut down operations which fail even the most minimum of safety levels. Nor do the workers involved have the privilege to alter the terms of the arrangement. The bargaining power between workers, shipping companies, shipbreaking companies etc is so evidently skewed.
      It is a good point you raise by questioning how responsible the users of the steel that comes from this industry are. Relatedly, we see how consumption from people who are more economically empowered (particularly in developing nations) is inextricable from our commodity fetishism to view the goods and services we purchase morally separate from the conditions in which they are produced.

  22. Risking the loss of lives or bearing with detrimental injuries is definitely where to draw a line from an ethical point of view. It is unethical for employers to even impose to ship-breakers the terms and conditions that no compensation will be made, as they know that they will agree given the economic situation.

  23. Why has this article only got one comment (two now)?

    Come on everyone, this is a great topic – ethically speaking – share your thoughts!

  24. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this exercise is encountering articles such as this, whereby before reading it I had no idea the issue existed. Both this article and the one on cobalt mining have educated me – thank you.

    As you rightly conclude, this issue doesn’t have a clear solution. Increasing workers’ rights, promoting a health and safety culture and ensuring adequate compensation probably will lead to the ship breaking business moving to a new place. Yet on another level, surely this is just wrong! Or is it? Do the workers have a choice? Are they being coerced into this business?

    It wasn’t that long ago that the Western World had workers doing dangerous jobs. Is it right to force out standards on nations that are catching up to us? Some argue that the wealth of Britain was generated from exploiting its empire, but it should also be noted that Britain was also exploiting her own working class too.
    In this context, the point is that the situation of workers in this industry is dangerous and worrying, but do we force our standards on them or allow them time to catch up?

    Allowing them time, means more workers will be injured and die. Forcing our standards on them may put all of them out of work.

    From a utilitarianism point of view, forcing our standards on them isn’t acceptable, as all are harmed. Standing by and doing nothing isn’t acceptable from Kant’s theory either, since we are allowing the ship breakers to be treated to standards different to how we’d like to be treated.

    It’s a good article, but can I encourage you to expand on the promising beginning you’ve made with regards to the ethical arguments for and against please?

    1. I am glad that you enjoyed reading the article!

      I think it is interesting to look at the arguments from an historical perspective as the workers exploited during the industrial revolutions powered huge economic growth in those western nations, and perhaps without it the present economies would be much smaller and wouldn’t be able to enjoy modern institutions, such as the educational and healthcare systems that we have today. This exploitation seems to be justified through a utilitarianism framework as the consequences have led to a greater good, however I’m sure those workers didn’t see it as such at the time.

      One way of viewing the moral dilemma is through the deontological perspective as Kant saw it and the concept of “mere means”. Kant postulated that an action can be morally justified provided that both parties can use the action as means to an end, in that the shipping companies use the workers to extract the full value from their ships and in return the workers get to share in that value. This would not be justified however if the shipping companies were using the workers as something to be manipulated (ie. mere means) whereby the workers have entered into an agreement where they could not fully consent to. The moral argument hinges on whether you believe that workers enter ship yards with the full knowledge of the health hazards, which in my opinion is unlikely as poor to non-existent health and safety training is provided on the dangers of asbestos and the PCB’s contained in the ships and therefore deception is used and the workers are simply reduced to “mere means”.

    2. You asked the question “are they being coerced into this business?” Irrespective of whether that was a rhetorical question, the issue of consent and the workers at issue ‘freely entering into an employment relationship’ does not apply to people whose lives are defined by abject poverty. This is the kind of existence we can only imagine in developed nations such as the United Kingdom.

      I think the analogy drawn in your comment, that the Western world once had workers doing dangerous jobs in comparable conditions, attempts to liken the deplorable working conditions at issue here to those of the manual labour workers of the Industrial Revolution in the UK (1800s factories and mines comes to mind). To highlight this correspondence to similarity in working conditions is unnecessarily dismissive of the technological progress we now possess in 2018, and the palpable capability we hold. It is a lazy failure to conceptualise ways in which to enable agency in other parts of the world by saying give them “time to catch up.” This implies that the availability and access to safer working measures enabled by practices and technology must involve developing nations simply need time.

      It is not conducive to frame the availability of acceptable working conditions for others in developing nations as “forcing our standards on them.” This is nothing but an artificial demarcation between the value we place on “our” standards and “theirs” in poorer nations. Although I acknowledge that legal norms and expectations drastically differ between nations, the workers at issue here would undeniably have their physical risk minimised with safer standards. Arguably their desire to be safe at work is no different from those in ‘our’ nations.

      It is crucial to be aware of discourse that obscures how international trade operates. It is confronting to recognise that the status quo of international industry and trade relations is fraught with exploitation. As many of the commenters have alluded, they were not aware of the shipbreaking industry and its ills.

      Admittedly the issue of national sovereignty bears its head here. Upon considering power and change, we ultimately place responsibility for regulations and law in the hands of those deemed to have jurisdiction and authority over defined geographic territories. This overlooks the complex and interwoven sharing of labour, skills, and resources.

      Further, to retrospectively laud and appreciate the benefits of historical exploitation of others and emphasise the benefits of this exploitation (a la the British Empire) is a bulwark (pun intended). Yes – clearly exploitation results in a surplus which can be re-allocated for advancement and progress, but ask yourself if it is ok to use this as a moral justification to the pain, suffering and loss inflicted on those exploited.

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