Shipping Steel

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A handful of oxygen fueled torches, mechanized shears, impromptu protective gears and a congregation of valiant human beings is all that is required to bring down a colossal vessel to its knees. Ship breaking; the process of complete dismantling and breaking down of unused or non-functioning ships for the task of recycling and re-using the steel. Approximately, 95% of the ship’s steel is used and is one of the primary, if not the single supply source of the steel market in many countries. The Shipbreaking and Recycling Industry (SBRI) accounts for more than half of the supply of steel in Bangladesh and is considered one of the prominent industries, providing an innate mixture of employment and revenue generation scopes since its advent in the early 1960’s. ‘MD Alpine’, a ship originating from Greece was stranded on the shores of Sitakund, Chittagong after undergoing a severe cyclone. This, in turn, was bought by the Chittagong Steel House and was dismantled. In the midst of the 60’s, the industry was present in countries such as United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy. Mainly because it was considered a highly mechanized operation, best left to the developed nations. However, the constant strive of business firms to achieve higher and higher levels of profit maximization eventually shifted their focus on the South-East region of Asia where the presence of cost-saving methods of work existed. By the 1980’s, the scrap yards of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan had an influx of decommissioned vessels. The existence of a surplus of cheap labor along with little or no health and safety standards transformed these countries into major players in the SBRI. There are numerous methods available when it comes to Ship Breaking. The ones adopted by the abovementioned countries are ‘beaching’ which involves the ship being sailed onto a tidal flat at spring tide and then being dismantled by the workers equipped with blowtorches. In comparison to the other methods (Dry Dock and Pier Breaking) available, ‘beaching’ is the most cost-effective practice because of its low wages, limited training and non-environmental friendly approach. Ship breaking on the beach, which already at that time was prohibited in most countries, could be done in Bangladesh without any concern (Young Power in Social Action, 2012). In the face of poverty, millions of people without education seek various means of livelihood opportunities; subsequently provided the cheap and exploitable manpower needed for the ship breaking the industry. Major sums of finance invested to initiate the emergence of activity were never quite required for the ship breaking world of Bangladesh. The present type of ship breaking in Bangladesh just require a large winch, some blowtorches and maybe a bulldozer. Rest of the operation is just raw human manpower. Bringing in approximately 1.5 billion dollars annually, it is considered a lucrative business venture with marginal risks for the yard owners, investors and money lenders.

Bangladesh has strived to secure the position as the second leading ship recycling country in the world. As per the (NGO Shipbreaking Platform, 2017), “835 vessels were dismantled, 543 of these ships were sold for dirty and dangerous breaking on the beaches of South Asia”. That’s a staggering 65% of the aggregate total which have been decommissioned by Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Amongst that, Bangladesh was responsible for 197 of them, which crossed the 6 million gross tonnages. The industry is seen to be developing at a swift pace and continues to generate direct and indirect streams of revenue.

The market for disseminating ships have vastly supported the ship-building industry. The shipyards are scattered around all over Bangladesh; Dhaka, Barisal and Khulna divisions house numerous of these locations. However, the industry is primarily focused on the second largest city in the country; Chittagong. The general means of production in these yards consists of local quality ships for the inland waterways as this provides the most economical means of transportation for carrying passengers and commodities. Nearly 200 ships are added to the existing fleet annually and the raw materials needed are provided by the scrap yards. Taking into account the existing fleets and the general pattern of growth of the inland ships, approximately 35,000-45000 tons are demanded by the local shipyards, which in turn is facilitated by the shipbreaking yards. The presence of this innate support by the scrapping yards enables the country’s shipyards to produce at a cost-effective rate (30-40%) compared to that of its rivals. Starting from the essential steel plate and structural members, to the basic navigational, safety equipment, to even doors, generators, valves, switchboard, cables and so on are provided by the yards. Consequently, adding to cost-effective shipbuilding. On the other hand, industries such as re-rolling, light and heavy engineering, are accordingly aided by the shipbreaking industry. This is due to the reason that recycled steel is an essential factor in steel production in Bangladesh. The annual statistics of the steel market support the abovementioned point as it is seen that shipbreaking approximately accommodates up to 60% of the total steel produced. Moreover, it employed 25000-40000 skilled and semi-skilled workers in 2015. In the list of direct economical contributions, the industry has been seen to secure some key landmarks. The output generated, amounted to roughly Taka 53.3 billion (2015), followed by various customs duties, income tax, and other government tax collection amounting to Taka 5 billion (Ahammad & Sujauddin, 2017).

The flip side of this achievement hovers around the means by which the recycling occurs. The industry is considered as the most unsafe job by the international labor organization. The incidence of labor exploitation has been prevalent as the segment of unskilled workers does not have much bargaining power. Opportunities for work is low, thus working here provides some means of income to sustain their livelihood.

It is largely seen that the ocean traveling ships are made of a generic construction of safe, structural and non-structural steel. However, the process of ship scrapping can generate a handful of harmful materials and substances. These include non-ferrous metallic materials, glass, and wood, polymeric and composite materials, sludge water, oil, asbestos. As per (Rabbi & Rahman, 2017), “substances like Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP’s), Asbestos area threat to both human health and marine environment”.

Hence, a thorough knowledge of the materials is needed to ensure a more economic, environmentally friendly and energy conserving, ship recycling system. A work plan consisting of proper allocation of resources must be constructed to not only ensure higher productivity but also in the fields of maintaining health and safety provisions. Adherence to a well-designed cutting plan will significantly lower any presence of health issues and will provide a swift and problem free dismantling operation. This, in turn, should be in perfect correlation with the lifting and handling operations. As the ‘beaching’ method of scrapping is adopted by the industry, advance planning of the entire operation is a prerequisite for ensuring proper accommodation of the hazardous materials. SBRI in Bangladesh has been on the rise since the last few decades. However, the data collected on the general practices of the dismantling yards says that there is a strong presence of unsafe working practices in addition to the environmental and occupational health threats.

‘I’ve read the script and the costume fits, so I’ll play my part.’ This is what can be best said when it comes to the context of the socio-economic profile of the ship breaking activities in Bangladesh. The general influx of workers is primarily from the poverty-stricken northern parts of the country. As per (Ahammad & Sujauddin, 2017), the workers are hired on a contractual basis of 8-hour shifts and receive compensations of Tk 200-500 per shift. As per (Young Power in Social Action, 2012), “It was found that the majority of the labor (40.75%) are between the ages of 18-22 years old. Only 1.13% of labor is between 46-60 years old; 46.42% of yard workers are illiterate while 43.02% attained primary school education, it was observed that 86.44% of the labor force stated that they received no medical facilities from the shipyard owners”. The presence of child labor has diminished to nearly zero in comparison to yesteryears. In an area where more than 100 shipyards are present, there is only one public hospital present. In a recent short documentary conducted by the media company, ‘In The Now’, on average one worker dies every week due to the occupational health hazard present. Moreover, the workers do not have any entitlements to annual, overtime, sick or maternity leave. Labor Law Act 2006 has the necessary provisions of the presence of health and safety in working conditions, minimum wage rate, leave and compensation. Yet, its implementation and compliance are almost nonexistent. There is an existence of a lack of proper political support and resources on the government’s side which subsequently leads to no acquiescence in the owner’s side.

SBRI is undoubtedly a lucrative venture, both in terms of revenue generation and employment scopes. However, there is a fundamental problem of exploitation present here. The human and environmental cost of this industry cannot be overlooked just by solely focusing on the merits of its offering. It is generally said that the average lifespan of the workers who are directly involved in the ship breaking activities, reduce by approximately 20 years. As per (NGO Shipbreaking Platform, 2017), clean and safe methods of ship recycling are present. The method adopted by dismantling a ship in a dry dock is a much more sophisticated method and provides the same generation of output; minus the risk of life. In a brief documentary conducted by the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, stated that on average it would require $350 per worker for the protective gears. Additionally, training programs could be equally beneficial as they will boost productivity and reduce risks of accidents. It doesn’t take much to provide these. Ship breaking is an important activity in the economics of Bangladesh. It makes a significant contribution to the global conservation of energy and resources. To ensure their hold of the competitive edge for the coming years, Bangladesh should seek a reformation of their operational and labor standards; a relatively small price for a formidable gain.

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