‘Where Ships And Workers Go To Die’’

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The International Metalworkers’ Federation has joined a global campaign calling on G20 heads of state to protect workers in one of the world’s most dangerous industries – shipbreaking.

A new report produced by the US-based National Labour Committee titled Where Ships and Workers Go to Die – Shipbreaking in Bangladesh & The Failure of Global Institutions to Protect Worker Rights, documents conditions for some 30,000 workers.

Many of them are children just 10 to 13 years old, who break apart massive decommissioned tanker ships, 650 to 1,000 feet long and 20 stories high, which are run up onto the beaches of Bangladesh.

According to the report, the shipbreakers are forced to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for wages of just 22 to 32 US cents an hour, doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

Workers, who often lack even the most minimal safety protections, are injured and maimed every day and on average a worker is killed every three weeks.

As part of the global effort to raise standards in Bangladesh shipbreaking yards, unions are signing on to an electronic petition which will be sent to this year’s chair of the G20, Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown, with a copy to US President Barack Obama.

The petition calls for an end to child labour, the enforcement of basic labour law protections in Bangladesh shipyards and the implementation of basic safety provisions.

‘The ten countries, many G20 members, and ten shipping companies that dominate global merchant cargo trade must guarantee that all toxic waste will be removed before ships are sent to Bangladesh – or India, Pakistan, China or Turkey – for scrapping,’ reads part of the petition signed by the IMF.

The National Labour Committee is a human rights advocacy group that focuses on the promotion and defence of worker rights.

The report’s executive summary says:

‘• Some of the world’s largest decommissioned tanker ships – measuring up to 1,000 feet long, twenty stories high and weighing 25 million pounds – have been run up on the beaches of Bangladesh.

‘In July of 2009, 112 tanker ships were strewn over four miles of beach.

‘• Thirty thousand Bangladeshi workers, some of them children just 10, 11, 12 and 13 years of age, toil 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for wages of just 22 to 32 cents an hour, doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

‘• According to estimates by very credible local organisations, 1,000 to 2,000 workers have been killed in Bangladesh’s shipbreaking yards over the last 30 years.

‘Currently, a worker is seriously injured every day, and a worker is killed every three to four weeks.

‘• On September 5, 2009, 35-year-old Mr Hossain was burned to death while breaking apart a South Korean tanker at the Kabir Steel Yard.

‘Twenty-year old Mr Ashek remains in critical condition, while three other workers were seriously burned. Their blowtorches struck a gas tank which exploded, engulfing them in flames.

‘• It is common for workers to be paralysed or crushed to death by heavy metal plates falling from the ship.

‘A 13-year old child, Nasiruddin Molla, was killed on July 14, 2008, when a large iron plate struck him in the head at the Sultana shipyard.

‘Accidents and even some deaths are not reported, and there is never an investigation.

‘• Each ship contains an average of 15,000 pounds of asbestos and ten to 100 tons of lead paint.

‘Shipbreaking workers are routinely exposed to asbestos, lead, mercury, arsenic, dioxins, solvents, toxic oil residues and carcinogenic fumes from melting metal and lead paint.

‘Environmental damage to Bangladesh’s beaches, ocean and fishing villages, has been massive.

‘• Helpers, often children, who go barefoot or wear flip flops, use hammers to break apart the asbestos in the ship, which they shovel into bags to carry outside and dump in the sand.

‘• Workers lack even the most rudimentary protective gear.

‘Cutters, who use blowtorches to cut the giant ships to pieces, wear sunglasses rather than protective goggles, baseball caps rather than hardhats, wrap dirty bandanas around their nose and mouth as they are not provided respiratory masks and wear two sets of shirts rather than a welder’s vests, hoping the sparks will not burn through to their skin, which happens every day.

‘• Four to six workers share each small, primitive room, often sleeping right on the dirty concrete floor. No one has a mattress.

‘In some of the hovels, the roof leaks when it rains, so workers have to sit up at night covering themselves with pieces of plastic. Their “shower” is a hand water pump.

‘• Every single labour law in Bangladesh and every one of the International Labor Organization’s internationally recognised workers rights standards are blatantly violated on a daily basis.

‘While forced to work overtime, the shipbreaking workers receive no overtime premium.

‘There are no weekly holidays, no paid sick days, no national holidays or vacations. Any worker asking for his proper wages is immediately fired.

‘• The shipbreaking workers are very clear on two points: that they will die early and that there have been no improvements whatsoever over the last thirty years in respect for worker rights laws or health and safety.

‘• The global institutions which direct world trade have miserably failed workers across the developing world who continue to be injured, cheated, maimed, paralysed and killed on a daily basis.

‘The G-20 countries, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, the International Maritime Organization and the International Labor Organization must be held accountable.’