Unlike in neighbouring India, the Bangladeshi shipyards are privately owned, and there is little oversight of working conditions by the authorities.
Leading trade unions from the shipbuilding and shipbreaking industries coordinate through an IndustriALL Action Group that meets every year. In Chittagong, Bangladesh on 1-2 November the Action Group focussed on the global campaign to clean up ship breaking, the world’s most dangerous job.
Satoshi Kudoh, co-chair of the sector, opened the meeting by discussing the resolution adopted at last year’s World Conference whereby all unions in the sector committed to lobby their respective government to ratify the Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships. The convention would dramatically improve the lives of shipbreaking workers.
There are around 20,000 shipbreaking workers in Chittagong, the second largest ship breaking area in the world, after Alang in India. The Action Group visited the Four Star shipbreaking yard in Sitakunda, one of 194 in Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi ship breaking union leader Nazim Uddin told the meeting:
In our country the employers believe in 100 per cent profit, but they believe in zero per cent safety compliance.
Workers are brought to the shipyard by contractors from rural northern Bangladesh, and then sent back without even seeing Chittagong city.
The government often delays union registration.
Shipbreaking workers have miserable conditions. Workers are paid daily, no work no pay. They receive no paid leave at all, no bonus, no gratuity, no service guarantee. Eight workers have been killed here in the last two months. Employers pay no compensation to the killed workers’ family. The High Court rules that each killed worker’s family should be compensated 500,000 Taka (US$ 6,400), but employers do not respect this.
The meeting heard reports of lobbying efforts pushing for ratification of the Hong Kong Convention by unions in Japan, Australia, Germany, Denmark, Norway and India. See those reports on the campaign web page here. Strong shipbuilding unions stand with shipbreaking workers out of solidarity and also because sustainable shipbreaking is needed for a sustainable shipbuilding industry.
The overall statistics for shipbreaking in 2014:
V. V. Rane, Vice-Chair of the sector and leader of the world's biggest shipbreaking union in Mumbai and Alang, India, said:
“It is important that we are here in Chittagong. With our visit to the shipyard we sent a message to Bangladeshi ship-breakers: We are with you.”
Shipbreaking is currently experiencing a downturn because China’s economic slowdown has put massive amounts of cheap Chinese steel on the market, pushing the price of steel so low that shipbreaking is not profitable. The downturn is forecast to continue for five years, however the industry will definitely grow after that point, as there are more ships on the sea now than ever before.
Australian AMWU’s assistant general secretary Glenn Thompson reported on his union’s campaign to keep the ship building industry strong in Australia. Subs = Jobs billboards are being crowd-funded for the city of Adelaide.
Kan Matsuzaki, IndustriALL’s Director for the Shipbuilding and Shipbreaking Industries:
We are committed to strong world-wide action to push the Hong Kong Convention. Putting that international standard in place in South Asia will change lives. IndustriALL is also working with our South Asian affiliates to organize stronger unions in the shipbreaking yards. The same unacceptable working conditions we saw here in Chittagong were present in the Indian yards before our affiliate organized the workers there.
The delegates of the Action Group meeting reaffirmed their commitment to world-wide action on the ratification of the Hong Kong Convention, to strengthen OHS activities and training, and to promote sustainable industrial policy, in line with the sector action plan 2015-2016.
The delegates also agreed to have the next Action Group meeting in Western Australia, in November 2016.