Tipping points and breaking ships: a story from Bangladesh


Bangladesh is one of a handful of countries where the world’s ships go to die. 

From tankers to cargo ships and cruise liners, the boats are run aground and broken up for scrap, often by hand.

It’s one of the most dangerous recycling jobs there is. Death and injuries are common among workers who lack protective equipment.

Oil, asbestos and ozone-destroying gases are regularly released into the environment. 

Is there a way for this industry to do better? And is clean shipbreaking even possible?

Correspondent Naimul Karim takes us to Cox’s Bazaar to meet shipbreakers and activists, and explores new efforts to make the business greener and safer.

Read the full storySign up for our newsletter, Climate. Change. for more analysis on the climate crisis - directly from the ground

Read the full transcript below or via the transcript tab above.

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Iman: There's a section of beach in Bangladesh that isn't your usual seaside vacation spot.

Naimul: It's considered to be one of the largest, longest, unbroken beaches in the world where these huge ships parked at the shore. It's very muddy area, it's always noisy.

Iman: And amid the noise and mud, thousands of men are busy doing one of the most dangerous recycling jobs in the world.

Naimul: And then you find workers working on the ships, pulling stuff through that muddy area, many of them just not even wearing sandals - their bare feet. No gloves, nothing that's required. So, there's a lot of things going on simultaneously. 

Iman: For decades, the ship-breaking yards of Cox's Bazar has been a graveyard for old and unwanted vessels. The place where the rest of the world sends the boats it no longer wants. But the way this place works could be changing. A change with potentially global implications.

In this episode, tipping points and breaking ships, a story from Bangladesh.

[MUSIC]

Iman: Welcome to “Just Transition”, a podcast from Thomson Reuters Foundation about the effort to make the planet cleaner and greener.

Clip 1: And recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.

Iman: Without leaving anyone behind.

Clip 2: Just transition, but affecting people and communities.

Iman: I'm your host, Iman Amrani.

This podcast will look at how we are to ensure a just transition, and what's at stake if it's ignored.

Clip 3: There is so much that we can do to keep this from getting worse.

Iman : Until recently, Naimul Karim was the Thomson Reuters Foundation reporter for Bangladesh, his home country. It wasn't a job where you could ignore climate change.

Naimul: Yeah, I mean, when it comes to climate change, the impacts of climate change, it's something that you get to see on the coastlines of Bangladesh, where a lot of people do get displaced. A lot of them end up moving into cities where they are forced to live in slums. If you come to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, a large number of people who live in the slums are essentially climate change victims because, you know, they have been forced to come to Dhaka from other cities in Bangladesh.

Iman: One story sticks with him - a woman whose house used to be on the coast.

Naimul: They point towards the water, rising water of the sea, and they tell me: "Look, I had a house right over there a few years back."

Iman: A place which is now underwater.

Naimul: "But then, because of the river erosion, I had to bring it here. And, you know, two years later, I might have to go further in the area."

Iman: In other words, move yet again.

Naimul: So there are lots of these kinds of stories that come out. There's a lot of displacement.

Iman: Is it something that, locally, people talk about? Do people talk about climate change?

Naimul: Yeah, they do. They do talk about it. They don't necessarily use the term climate change, but they do talk about it in different ways. For instance, there are people on the coast who say, "I have never seen the water rise so high in the last 10-15 years. There must be something different going on over here." Some of them, the younger ones at the coastline, and they are sort of aware that it's not Bangladesh's fault that they're facing this. They know that the emissions from Bangladesh are really little compared to the rest of the world, so they are sort of aware of the climate change politics as well.

Iman: The connections between Bangladesh and the rest of the world are even clearer in the ship-breaking yards of Cox's Bazar. Bangladesh disposes of a huge proportion of the world's derelict shipping, around a third of the world's scrap ships by tonnage in 2019. The phone in your pocket, the car you drive, the shirt on your back almost likely at one point traveled across the world on cargo ships, ships that are mostly too dangerous, expensive and polluting to dispose of in the West.

Naimul: I first visited a shipyard in Bangladesh more than a decade ago, and I was obviously quite young and I wasn't aware of what actually workers go through, etc., etc.. So, there are about 80 functioning ship-breaking yards and sometimes about only 40 or 50 of them function, sometimes all eighty of them function. It depends upon the ships that come.

Iman: If the world's future lies in reducing waste; reusing metals, chemicals and plastics; in recycling what no longer has a use, Cox's Bazar is the future, recycling on an industrial scale.

Naimul: Ships come here from different parts of the world, from Europe, from various parts of the world. When they start heading towards the end of life, the ship eventually comes towards South Asia in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where there are shipyards in all of these countries.

Iman: Everything that can possibly be reused, resold or repurposed is taken apart and sold off, from the light bulbs in the ship's canteen to the steel in the ship's anchor. It's a dangerous business. 

Speaker 3: My name is Ibrahim Kalin, I’m 48 years old. I was a foreman for more than 34 years.

Iman: These are Naimul’s recordings of his interview with Ibrahim.

Naimul: Ibrahim Khaleel seemed like someone who was struggling. He was quite thin. I met him near his house. It was a tea stall and he was sitting there drinking tea.

Speaker 3: Even though my house is nearby from here and doesn't take much time to walk, but even this is very painful.

Naimul: And when he met me, we separated ourselves from the crowd and he was comfortable with that. And you, when you see him, I'm not sure if is depression, but he was really sad when he was talking. He was almost in tears when he was talking about his family and how he's able to support them right now because he has no work.

Speaker 3: I have two girls and two boys. I have a wife, including my mother at home, and I'm a sole earner. Now that I'm injured, obviously my family is going to be affected.

Naimul: Yeah, so Ibrahim was a cutter, meaning he cut parts of the ship, and you need a certain amount of skills and expertise for that as well. And so while cutting the ship, that particular part of the ship that he was cutting, it landed on his leg.

Speaker 3: The boat on my leg got smashed into pieces and one of my major veins got cut. As you can see, even now, there's no flesh in this particular area of my leg, even though it's recovering. But you can still see the bone through my leg.

Naimul: And he was stuck there for some time before help arrived, and then he was sent to the hospital.

Speaker 3: The doctor instructed me to cut off my entire leg.

Iman: But the owner of the shipyard wouldn't pay for the recommended surgery, and Ibrahim never managed to heal as he could have. He's still not received the medical help that the doctors recommended.

Speaker 3: It's been more than one and a half years since I've been injured sitting at home. The doctor of the yard has just been coming and visiting me for regular dressing but nothing else. The yard doctor told me that if I'd been treated properly, I would have been healed by now. There have been many other accidents on the yards, but the treatment hasn't been consistent. They've been treated for some time and then escaped the situation.

Naimul: While talking to him, he was repeatedly pointing towards his leg and he was saying things like: “Can you see it? Its still not recovered. How do you expect me to go back to work?”

Speaker 3: In my current state, I'm able to move my leg a bit and sit in some cases, but there's no flesh in this particular area of my leg.

Naimul: So he seemed like someone who was really desperate to get back to the same work that actually injured him.

Speaker 3: I didn't ask the yard for a lot of money. All I asked them was to heal me and pay for my treatment properly so that post-healing I want to start working again. Repeatedly, I just kept telling them that.

Naimul: You can actually feel how desperate he is. Here is a job that almost made him lose his leg, and yet he wants to get back to it as soon as possible with the proper treatment. It's not like he's scared of getting injured again. To him, what was important was that he needs to feed his family.

Speaker 3: I have only one demand, that is the proper treatment for my leg, so I could be able to walk properly. That's it.

Iman: There is a plan to try and make stories like Ibrahim's a thing of the past, or at least much less likely. And not just in Bangladesh, a project to clean up the whole ship-breaking industry across the world.

Naimul: Yeah. So the Hong Kong Convention focuses on environment and worker safety. About 50 to 60 countries decided to agree to the Hong Kong Convention in 2009 and essentially, the rules focus on proper disposal of waste, proper safety equipment for workers.

Iman: It's not really much of a page turner, but the convention is ambitious. On paper, it has the potential to change the entire industry.

Speaker 4: The parties to this convention, noting the growing concern about safety, health, the environment and welfare matters in the ship recycling industry resolved to effectively address in a legally binding instrument … [FADES OUT]

Iman: Under the convention, two things would be much more closely controlled. First, the environmental damage done by ship-breaking.

Naimul: There are lots of these wastes that come out from these ships. Approximately, I think, 30 different kinds of wastes. Some of them are ozone depleting. Some of them are asbestos related waste that comes up from the pipes of the ships, which can cause cancer and things like that.

Iman: Currently, asbestos is regularly handled by shipyard workers, something that wouldn't be permitted in the West. The ozone depleting chemicals are ones which can cause damage to the Earth's atmosphere, resulting in the ozone layer hole over the South Pole. Also present in many ships are heavy metals in the paint, all of which flow into the environment, causing harm across the food chain. The convention would monitor and reduce all of that. Every ship would need to carry an inventory of every harmful substance it contains. Allowing ship breakers to dispose of them more safely, leading us to the second element of the convention.

Naimul: The rules focus on proper safety equipment for workers, and part of the convention system is also to have a proper medical supply system so that emergencies can be tackled. There also needs to be a proper monitoring system like, say, for instance, when a worker dies whenever he gets injured, there needs to be a proper monitoring system.

Iman: The convention has been criticized for not going far enough, but its rules would still represent a huge leap forward in many countries. But you may have noticed the year the Hong Kong convention was written.

Speaker 4: Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships 2009.

Iman: Thirteen years ago at the time I'm recording this. So what happened?

Naimul: The thing is, the Hong Kong convention hasn't come into force yet. You know, for it to come into force, there are certain criteria that it needs to meet.

Iman: Three conditions to be exact. First, that at least 15 states must sign on - that's already happened. Second, that those states represent 40 percent or more of world shipping by tonnage. That hasn't happened yet, but it is mostly there, we're currently at 30 per cent. And third, that the states signing up handle at least three per cent of global ship recycling. And this is where things have really stalled - until these tipping points have been reached, all these new rules are theoretical or just locally enforced. The convention is just a piece of paper, and it has been since 2009. But right now, those figures don't include Bangladesh. If Bangladesh does ratify it, the crucial third condition about global recycling will be triggered. So in theory, Bangladesh has an opportunity to improve not just its own industry, but also to take steps towards creating a global system for protecting the environment and workers' health. But to ratify the treaty, Bangladesh needs to improve standards in its own industry first

Naimul: They need to vastly improve the safety standards, and they also need to improve their disposal system the way they dispose of the waste that they get from the ships.

Iman: The Bangladeshi government has given the industry a deadline to improve.

Naimul: So it has given its shipyards a goal, a target to make its yards compliant by 2023.

Iman: That's next year at the time we are recording. So how much further is there to go? A few finishing touches, some substantial changes or…

Naimul: Right now, out of the eighty yards that are present, only one is compliant to the Hong Kong convention.

Iman: Yes, just one out of 80. And that's reflected in the safety record. In 2019 alone, there were 24 recorded deaths in the shipbreaking yards or one every two weeks.

Naimul: Yet there are many different ways those deaths take place. Injuries take place so say for instance they're there on the ship, they're cutting. And then because of lack of planning of how we go about cutting the ship, a worker may fall or a part of the ship may just land on the worker. Then there is also the issue of gas leakage when the worker inhales it or the worker dies.

Iman: The NGO ship-breaking platform, which campaigns for improvements to the industry, listed six fatal accidents in Bangladeshi ship-breaking yards in the first half of 2021 alone and 11 severe injuries. And that might not be the full count. One reason why ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh haven't implemented these changes is the cost.

Naimul: The only one yard that has met these goals, that yard spent millions of dollars, like eight to nine million dollars, and a lot of yards don't have that kind of money.

Iman: How realistic is it if only one of the yards out of the 80 is in any way following the guidelines if there's a year to go? Does that mean that this can realistically happen or is it kind of like pie in the sky?

Naimul: Yeah, these are the exact question that I asked the government monitoring agency. And so one of their immediate replies was like once Bangladesh ratifies the convention, they'll have two years to meet all the goals. So say, for instance, if they ratify in 2023, all of them was the compliant by 2025. So from that perspective, you know, the government is hopeful that the rest of the yards will meet the deal. So for now, the situation is like about all the yards have given their plans how they plan to proceed.

Iman: But even with two more years to play with, is this plan realistic?

Naimul: The government says that they're hopeful things can happen. So the real sources of information really are from a couple of NGOs who have been following the industry for the last two decades. And when you speak to them as well, they tell you that look, yes, this particular deadline is going to be hard to meet, but you have to understand that there was nothing before 2016, and the situation has drastically changed since 2017.

Iman: Do you look how few ship-breaking yards are close to making the deadline, or do you look at how much worse things were in recent history in these situations? Is the glass half full or half empty?

Naimul: When I spoke to a number of workers. There are few things that they say, for instance. Most of them say that the situation is a lot better than it was 10 years ago, 10 to 15 years ago, 10, 15 years ago. There basically wasn't any talk of safety. There wasn't anything. But right now, workers, some of them know about the Hong Kong convention, that there are these mechanisms that are working on, you know, improving the safety. So from that perspective, things are better. But again, like I mentioned, it's just one yard that has met the requirements. I spoke to 100 workers while working on this. What they say is that apart from four to five yards, they're still the same outside these four or five yards. It's difficult to get safety equipment. Sometimes workers have to bring their own gloves, their own boots outside of these four to five yards. The Ministry of Industry, which handles this particular issue, they tend to have a lot more inspections on the floor. So on the ground, the opinion is that yes, it's slightly better than what was before. But still, a majority of the yards have a long way to go.

Iman: Do you think the workers themselves expect to see an improvement anytime soon?

Naimul: The workers are actually the real heroes because of the livelihood. They tend to work in these conditions. Year after year and most of them, they're all used to it. Some of the workers who I interviewed, they're like, Yeah, this is bad. Yeah, it's bad. But this is life. You know, this is how it is. There's no other option. That's what's there in their mind, right? If not this and what? What do you want to do? Where do I work, if not this? So I guess this is a common mindset, which is they're based on, you know, the workers that I've spoken to and I just feel that they obviously deserve a lot better and there needs to be reforms here. There's still a long way to go.

Iman: But even if every yard complies, problems for the workers won't end because as yards modernize, the opportunities for workers shrink.

Naimul:There are about 15000 workers who depend on this industry. Earlier, it was a lot more. About 60 to 70000 people before.

Iman: Yards are mechanizing and automating.

Naimul: With the arrival of machines and a lot of them have lost their jobs because of these cranes that have come in, these cranes end up doing a lot of their jobs.

Iman: One of the things I do keep asking everyone is like, “Where do you find hope?” As a journalist or a reporter yourself, when you look at the huge issues being faced, do you feel optimistic about the future?

Naimul: Oh, the situation still obviously needs a lot more improvement, but it has improved gradually. So yes, you do feel bad like, say, for instance, that I meet wives of workers in the ship-breaking industry who passed away. I met a number of them and they end up crying every time they start talking. And you tend to feel like there is no hope. One wife I spoke to, her son was like one month, two months old when her husband passed away and she was crying and she was like, What's the point of talking to journalists? There is, you know, you can't do anything for me. Those kinds of interviews, it really makes you feel like there's so much more to be done. But at the same time, you find these yards, which actually tend to help rural workers or the families who otherwise would have found it very difficult to get into other jobs. You tend to think like, OK, so there are two sides of the story over here. And then when you think about solutions, there's no one solution. You just can't close the entire industry. And that would make it worse for a lot of workers living there. So, yeah, those are some of the thoughts, very conflicted thoughts that go to you when you covered these kinds of stories.

Iman: How did Ibrahim see the promise of reforms in the ship-breaking yards?

Naimul: I asked him what he thought about the reforms that are taking place, and what he said was that a lot of things have changed in the last 10 years. A lot more yard owners are providing safety equipment. But. The rest of them are still the same, they still need to improve a lot.

Speaker 3: Before, they didn't provide us boots, but now they do after 2010 or 15. All of the safety equipment is available. They gave us helmet, boots. I would say that around five percent of the companies only follow all the requirements. The rest 95 percent doesn't really provide consistently, including any equipments. However, I can probably say I was working among the five percent of the companies, and I was given everything starting from boots, helmets and gloves. I've been working in the shipyard for long, so I know the situation about how 95 percent of the other companies doesn't provide the safety requirements. For these companies I must say that you have to wear a helmet shoes, but then there are many other companies that doesn't even mention that you need it for your safety environments.

Naimul: In Bangladesh, there's the gap between the rich and poor, it's still a lot. It's still really high, and people assume that these workers are helpless. They're not able to do much. But I think that's the wrong way to look at them. The workers, they have a lot of pride. They have a lot of respect for themselves. They are running their family with their own money, so they don't want to be looked as someone who you are helping or supporting or things like that, right? So even when I go and visit these workers and their homes and stuff, they're all very respectful. They all want to feed me. They all want to give me tea, biscuits and food. They don’t want me to leave before having lunch. I've had to deny food, lunch because every house I was going to was just giving me tea and biscuits and everything. And even if you deny it, they might sometimes think that, okay, you are denying because you don't like the food. What I'm trying to say is they have a lot of respect. They have a lot of pride for themselves. They want to build a career for their children’s children. So I think one of the misconceptions is that these people are helpless. They're not helpless. They have a lot of plans and they have a lot of dreams. But when incidents like this take place, that kind of spoils those dreams and those ambitions that they have.

Iman: You can read Naimul Karim's work on the ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh on the Thomson Reuters Foundation website. Link in the show notes. We are also grateful for the help from the International Maritime Organization and from the ship-breaking Platform, an NGO which campaigns for workers in the industry in making this episode.

Just Transition is made by Antica Productions and Context, a news platform powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

This episode was produced by Leo Hornak.

Our associate producers are Abhi Raheja and Paula Sant’Anna.

Sound design by Reza Dahya.

Legal help from Melissa Tesla and Murshed Anwar.

Our executive producer is Kathleen Goldhar.

The president of Antica productions is Stuart Coxe.

Our Context team includes Just Transition Editor Megan Rowling, and Editor-in-Chief Yasir Khan.

The CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation is Antonio Zappulla.