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Dirty and dangerous shipbreaking in Chittagong, Bangladesh

Chittagong is one of the largest shipbreaking yards in the world. The industry has been criticized for contaminating the environment and exposing low-paid workers to high risks.


Shipbreaking is the process of dismantling an obsolete vessel’s structure for scrapping or disposal. Ocean-going ships, both mainly owned and used for their trade by developed countries, are demolished, together with their toxic materials, in developing countries. Each year, around 1000 large ocean ships reach the end of their service life and are broken down to recover steel. Yet only a fraction is handled in a safe, sustainable manner. More than two-thirds of all end-of-life ships are simply run ashore on tidal beaches in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan where unscrupulous shipbreaking companies exploit minimal enforcement of environmental and safety rules to maximize profits (in connivance with shipping companies). Likewise, even though clean and safe alternatives are available elsewhere, the vast majority of ship owners, most of which are based in the EU, Japan and China, are unwilling to internalise the costs of safe and environmentally sound ship recycling and circumvent existing laws to maximise their profits. On the beaches of South Asia, poor migrant workers are deployed by tens of thousands to break down large ships manually, which are often full of toxics such as asbestos, lead, ozone depleting substances, PCBs and heavy metals. Little care is given to worker safety or protection of the environment. Ship owners and ship breakers obtain large profit avoiding decontamination, dumping environmental costs to workers, local farmers and fishermen. They practice cost-shifting. The toxics sicken the workers and ravage coastal ecosystems. The muddy sand and shifting grounds of tidal beaches cannot support adequate heavy lifting equipment or rapid emergency response, therefore accidents maim or kill countless of workers each year. The statistics are alarming. In Bangladesh, children count for 25% of the workforce. There and elsewhere, the total death toll runs into the thousands. Also, ten thousands of protected mangrove trees, essential to the ecosystem’s health and to the protection from cyclones and floods, are being cut to make way for ships. This and the accompanying poisons from shipbreaking have killed or devastated dozens of aquatic species, destroying also the livelihoods of surrounding fishing communities.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Dirty and dangerous shipbreaking in Chittagong, Bangladesh
State or province:Chittagong District
Location of conflict:Chittagong
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Deforestation
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Wetlands and coastal zone management
Ship-breaking yards
Specific commodities:Asbestos
Industrial waste
Recycled Metals
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The Chittagong shipbreaking area has more than 140 plots on a 10-15 km stretch of the beach situated around Sitakund. In 2009 more than 14 000 protected mangrove trees were illegally cut to make room for additional shipbreaking yards on the beach. 640 large ocean-going vessels were sold to Bangladesh for breaking between 2012 and 2014. Most of these ships were owned by European or East Asian shipping companies.

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Project area:1,500
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:200,000 (workers), local fishermen and their families, surrounding communities
Start of the conflict:01/01/2000
Company names or state enterprises:Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association (BSBA) from Bangladesh
G Bulk from Greece - sold end-of-life ship to substandard shipbreaking yard
Yang Ming from China - sold end-of-life ship to substandard shipbreaking yard
TBS International from United States of America - sold end-of-life ship to substandard shipbreaking yard
Hyundai Merchant Marine from Republic of Korea - sold end-of-life ship to substandard shipbreaking yard
Ernst Komrowski Reederi from Germany - sold end-of-life ship to substandard shipbreaking yard
Zodiac Group Monaco from Monaco - sold end-of-life ship to substandard shipbreaking yard
Vroon BV from Netherlands - sold end-of-life ship to substandard shipbreaking yard
Spliethoff from Netherlands - sold end-of-life ship to substandard shipbreaking yard
Ignazio Messina from Italy - sold end-of-life ship to substandard shipbreaking yard
Relevant government actors:Ministry of Industries, Ministry of Environment and Forest, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Ministry of Labour and Employment (Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments), Chittagong Port Authority
International and Finance InstitutionsInternational Maritime Organization (IMO)
International Labour Organization (ILO) from Switzerland
The World Bank (WB) from United States of America
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:NGO Shipbreaking Platform, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), The Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE), Young Power in Social Action (YPSA)
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Industrial workers
Informal workers
International ejos
Local ejos
Social movements
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Oil spills, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Fires
Potential: Soil erosion, Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Deaths
Potential: Malnutrition, Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsThe statistics are alarming. In 2014, at least 17 workers have lost their lives at the Chittagong shipbreaking site, either crushed to death by falling steel plates, by explosions, fires or the release of toxic gases. Another 38 workers were reported seriously injured. There are however no official figures. Workers do not receive regular health check-ups, thus occupational diseases cannot be detected. There are no figures about long-term health impacts, such as cancer or asbestosis.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights, Other socio-economic impacts, Displacement
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..)
Other socio-economic impactsA majority of workers are migrant workers from the North of Bangladesh, the poorest area of the country. They follow so-called contractors to the shipbreaking yard, who provide labourers to the foremen in the yards. The migrant workers do not have contracts or any direct employment relationship with the yard owners and often have the lowest paid jobs.
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Court decision (undecided)
New legislation
Strengthening of participation
Project temporarily suspended
Proposal and development of alternatives:The NGO Shipbreaking Platform and its members call on the governments in ship-owning countries (in particular: the EU and its Member States, Japan, China, Singapore, and the US) to prohibit the export of end-of-life vessels to South Asian shipbreaking countries as long as:
- end-of-life vessels contain significant amounts of hazardous waste;
- the shipbreaking countries cannot prove that all hazardous waste is removed, stored, treated, disposed or destructed in an environmantally sound manner;
- working and living conditions of shipbreaking workers remain inadequate;
- shipbreaking does not take place in modern ship recycling facilities off the beach with minimum technical and infrastructural requirements allowing for the containment of pollutions and workers’ health and safety.
The NGO Shipbreaking Platform and its members call on ship owner to only sell their end-of-life vessels to modern ship recycling facilities off the beach. By 2016, it is expected that the European Commission will publish a list of clean and safe ship recycling yards globally. The Platform will be recommending the use of these yards to ship owners.
The NGO Shipbreaking Platform and its member organisations in Bangladesh recommend the following actions to the Government of Bangladesh, the shipbreaking industry as well as the relevant international organisations:
- The Government needs to close down all shipbreaking yards which do not operate in accordance with the Supreme Court rulings, operate without Environmental Clearances based on the assessment of their performance, or operate illegally on forest land, where mangrove trees have been cut illegally.
- The Government must ensure that yard owners are held responsible for severe injures and deaths resulting from a lack of adequate infrastructe, equipment, oversight or training. So far, no yard owner has been held responsible for their negligence and breach of the law.
- The Government needs to ensure that no child or adolescent workers under the age of 18 work in the shipbreaking yards. Yards in which workers under 18 are found, need to be sanctioned and eventually closed down if illegal child labour is not stopped. The shipbreaking sector must be taken into account in the Government’s strategy to eradicate worst forms of child labour.
- The Government together with the relevant local authorities should develop and implement a «Green Ship Recycling Strategy», that is, a cross-departmental policy to allow for the much needed shift towards clean and safe ship recycling off the beach and compliant with international and domestic law, based on guidance offered by the Basel Convention, the ILO and the IMO.
- The Government should seek advice from the international institutions, in particular the Basel Convention Secretariat, the ILO and the IMO, and build partnerships to finance the needed investments in infrastructure to develop modern ship recycling facilities off the beach.
- The «Green Ship Recycling Strategy» should provide a roadmap for investments in the technical infrastructure of the shipbreaking yards to allow for the transition towards safer and environmentally sound methods off the beach (e.g. impermeable floors and drainage system, heavy lifting equipment, electricity and water supply).
- The Government of Bangladesh should cooperate with the other shipbreaking countries in South Asia – India and Pakistan – in a joint effort to exchange experience and alter shipbreaking practices so that competitiveness is not based on the lowest standards, but that instead a ‘level playing field’ is negotiated between shipbreaking countries.
- Taking into account already existing legal provisions, the Supreme Court rulings and obligations under international law, the Government needs to develop sector-specific shipbreaking rules. The new regulation needs to accommodate the overlaps in responsibilities between different government agencies at the national and local level and needs to clearly define the competent authorities’ roles.
- The new regulation should be based on a comprehensive review of existing legislation and a gap analysis, and should allow for the implementation of international obligations under the Basel Convention (in particular Prior Informed Consent and Environmentally Sound Management of hazardous wastes) as well as the standards set out in the new EU Ship Recycling Regulation.
- The new regulation needs to set out the authorisation criteria for facilities, to establish a set of rules for facility operation, including the procedures to obtain permits for different kinds of hazardous work, clearly define which authority needs to issue certificates and approvals, and set up an effective facility inspection regime to ensure that shipbreaking only occurs in accordance with the regulation’s requirements.
- With regards to hazardous waste management, the “Green Ship Recycling Strategy” needs to include a plan to establish: a reception facility for operationally and non-operationally generated waste at a port close to the yards with a mandatory port call for all imported end-of-life vessels to perform cleaning activities such as cleaning cargo tanks, emptying bilge tanks, paint and chemical stores, and unloading waste oil and surplus fuel, waste storage on the yards, waste reception facilities such as a sanitary landfill, disposal treatment facility for hazardous waste such as PCBs, a system to track hazardous waste and to avoid the repartition into the market, establishment of a testing laboratory with portable equipment, regular monitoring of the presence of contaminants in soil, water, sediments and air.
- There is an immediate need for training, awareness-raising and capacity building for workers to ensure safe operations. The government should provide a training center and seek the assistance of the Basel Convention Secretariat and ILO for further guidance on materials and the organisation of the training. Adequate training must be a pre-requirement for work in the shipbreaking yards. Workers needs to be handed out certificates and training efforts needs to be documented.
- With regards to workers’ rights, health and safety and living conditions, and irrespective of trade union membership, the authorities need to accommodate for: the immediate implementation of the applicable laws relative to labour rights, the immediate improvement of workers’ living conditions including drinking water and proper sanitation, the introduction of occupational health and safety procedures, the enforcement of the use of adequate PPE, a health care system for the workers including rapid access to a hospital, the availability of a medical insurance for workers, an adequate system for emergency response, the documentation of casualties, injuries, damages and occupational diseases and effective record-keeping, the provision of contracts or letter of appointments for workers and their automatic registration for social benefits.
- With regards to the dangers of asbestos, the sector-specific regulation needs to include strict requirements regarding OHS standards during removal, storage and disposal of asbestos to make sure that workers are not harmed and that elements containing asbestos cannot be re-sold. There is a need for regular medical check-ups. It is advisable to introduce a new draft law on asbestos safety.
- The responsible authorities need to monitor the implementation of laws and have enforcement mechanisms in place. This includes a training programme tailored for the designated officials including the judiciary (for instance in the local Labour Court). Compliance needs to be monitored especially with regards to: workers’ registration for social benefits, provision and use of personal protective equipment (PPE), application of environmental, health and safety procedures, use of obligatory on-site pollution control and safety gadgets, periodic monitoring of maintenance and improvements of on-site equipment, provision of sufficient, improved and satisfactory on-site health care system, adequate training status of workers and awareness of hazards, maintenance of hazardous waste inventory and disposal.
- The Government of Bangladesh should ratify the Basel Ban Amendment, thus prohibit the import of hazardous waste, and the Hong Kong Convention and seek early compliance with the provisions under the latter. Moreover, the Government should enforce all the provisions of the Basel Convention and seek guidance also from the EU Ship Recycling Regulation's standards for ship recycling facilities.
- The Government should support a study to define the level and distribution of contamination in and around the shipbreaking yards, and develop an inventory of hazardous wastes (e.g. for the unmarked asbestos dumping grounds). It should identify “hot spots” that need to be cleaned up. It can seek the international organisations’ expertise and support for this task. The SBC (UNEP) has started a survey in that sense and the Government should make sure they cooperate and access the information gathered.
- The Government needs to promote unbiased research on the working conditions and the environmental impact of shipbreaking. They need to allow for transparency and enhance civil society involvement. Moreover, they should embrace the active participation of trade unions and promote their independent and democratic structures.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Significant decisions towards environmental and social protection have been taken by the Supreme Court in Bangladesh. Several imports of vessels have been stopped by the Courts on the grounds that Bangladesh should not import toxic wastes. In 2009 all shipbreaking yards were required to close as none of them had the necessary environmantal permits to operate. In 2014 some of the yards situated where 14 000 mangrove trees were illegaly cut were eveicted and the Courts also ordered the replanting of the trees. The court ordered the consolidation of laws relevant for shipbreaking in line with both environmantal protection and workers' rights.
However, most of the court's orders have been ignored by both the Government and the industry.
The Bangladeshi ship breaking industry remains a hazardous industry for both workers and the environment. Since 2009 most yards have been able to re-open based on environmental permits with extended deadlines for complience with relevant environmental requirements. Though illegal by Bangladesh law, children still make up about 20% of the workforce. Bangladesh remains the second most favoured destination for ship owners looking for maximum profits when selling their old ships.
So far little attention has been given to the sector by governmental agencies.
Due to the lack of adequate technology and equipment as well as deficient law enforcement, proper waste handling procedures are not followed. So far, the sector can neither prevent pollution and the distribution of hazardous materials into the local market nor mitigate the risks of accidents and occupational diseases.
There is still no hazardous waste management system for the shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh. Hazardous waste store houses are empty and not in use. There is no asbestos landfil, no waste treatment facility, such as an incinerator for PCBs, and the yards do not have water treatment plants.
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships
[click to view]

Regulation (EU) No 1257/2013 on ship recycling
[click to view]

IMO Guidelines on Ship Recycling
[click to view]

High Court, Writ Petition No. 7260 of 2008

Petroleum Act 1934

Merchant Shipping Ordinance 1983

Import Policy Order

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal
[click to view]

Safety and health in shipbreaking: ILO Guidelines for Asian countries and Turkey
[click to view]

Bangladesh Labour Act 2006
[click to view]

Ship Breaking and Ship Recycling Rules 2011
[click to view]

Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act 1995
[click to view]

Factories Act 1965

Explosives Act 1884

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

NGO Shipbreaking Platform - FIDH, Childbreaking yards, 2008
[click to view]

World Bank, The Ship Breaking and Recycling Industry in Bangladesh and Pakistan, 2010
[click to view]

FIDH - Greenpeace - YPSA, End of life ships - The human cost of breaking ships, 2005
[click to view]

Visiting the Deadly Ship-Breaking Yards of Bangladesh, by Liza Jansen, August 9, 2014, VICE CANADA
[click to view]

The Economist, 2012, Hard to break (an article on the Chittagong shipbreaking yard)
[click to view]

Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, One More Victim in Bangladesh Shipbreaking Yards
[click to view]

Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, Four More Shipbreakers Killed in Bangladesh; Three Injured and in Critical Condition
[click to view]

Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, 15-Year-Old Boy Crushed to Death at Shipbreaking Yard in Bangladesh
[click to view]

Peter Gwin, The Ship-Breakers
[click to view]

The Maritime Executive, Is There Child Labor in Shipbreaking Yards?
[click to view]

GreenPort, Illegal Bangladeshi shipbreakers closed down
[click to view]

Liza Jansen, The Deadly Shipbreaking Yards of Chittagong
[click to view]

Pranabesh Chakraborty, Deforestation causes embankment erosion in Sitakunda
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Photo gallery - Shipbreaking yards of Chittagong, Bangladesh 2010
[click to view]

Video: National Geographic - Where ships go to die
[click to view]

Video: Where ships and workers go to die
[click to view]

Video: Shipwreck / Embarrancados (2010)
[click to view]

Video: Ironeaters – The trailer
[click to view]

Photo gallery - Shipbreaking yards of Chittagong, Bangladesh 2009
[click to view]

Shipbreaking yard, Chittagong (9 minutes)
[click to view]

Video: ZDF - Giftiger Tankerschrott für Bangladesch
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:NGO Shipbreaking Platform - Email: [email protected], with Federico Demaria
Last update18/08/2019
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