NLC Report on Bangladesh Sweatshop - The Kabir Steel Yard, Chittagong
In September 2009, an NLC report was titled, "Where Ships and Workers Go To Die: Shipbreaking in Bangladesh & The Failure of Global Institutions to Protect Worker Rights." NLC Executive Director Charles Kernaghan wrote a preface saying "If There Is a Hell on Earth, This Is It," calling the Kabir site "one of the strangest, most striking and frightening (ones) in the world."
About 30,000 workers dismantle enormous decommissioned tanker ships - 20 stories high weighing 25 million pounds, up to 1,000 feet long, and from 95 - 164 feet wide. They perform the world's most hazardous jobs 12 hours a day, seven days a week for 22 - 32 cents an hour "handling and breathing in dangerous toxic waste and with no safeguards whatsoever and under conditions that violate every local and international labor law." Serious injuries happen daily, in some cases paralyzing, for others deaths every three or four weeks. Over the past 30 years, as many as 2,000 have been killed. Life is cheap, and no one cares.
Employing mostly young men, but also children as young as 11, the operation has been ongoing for over 30 years under horrific conditions. Workers use hammers to break up 15,000 pounds of asbestos in each ship, then dump it on the sand to wash away.
Four to six of them share primitive rooms, often sleeping on a filthy concrete floor. No one can afford a mattress. Roofs leak so, on rainy nights, they have to sit up covering themselves with plastic sheets. Their shower is a hand water pump. They deserve better and don't ask for much - 60 cents an hour, legal overtime wages, one day a week off, sick days, holidays, and healthcare to cover job injuries.
On September 5, 2009, a worker was burned to death breaking apart a South Korean tanker. Another is in critical condition, and three more were seriously burned when their blowtorches struck a gas tank that exploded, engulfing them in flames.
They're often paralyzed or crushed to death by falling metal plates. On July 14, 2008, a 13-year old child was killed when a large iron one struck his head. Accidents like these aren't reported, and investigations are never held.
On average, each ship contains about 15,000 pounds of asbestos and 10 - 100 tons of lead paint. As a result, workers are exposed to toxins from asbestos, lead, PCBs, mercury, arsenic, dioxins, cadmium, solvents, black oil residues and carcinogenic fumes from melting metal and lead paint. In addition, Bangladesh beaches, ocean, and fishing villages sustain heavy environmental contamination.
Helpers, often children, go barefoot or wear flip flops, use hammers to break apart asbestos, then shovel it into bags to dump in the sand. The most rudimentary protective gear is absent. Cutters using blowtorches wear sunglasses, not protective goggles; baseball caps, not hardhats; dirty bandanas around their noses and mouths, not respiratory masks; and two sets of shirts, not welders' vests, hoping not to get burned but they do daily.
All International Labor Organization (ILO) and Bangladesh labor laws are blatantly violated. Anyone asking for proper wages is immediately fired. Workers are assured of early deaths because conditions haven't changed in over 30 years.
A dead worker is worth $1,400. On August 12, 2008, a worker was crushed by a metal plate when a cable holding it up snapped. Another worker's leg was so badly hurt, it was amputated. A third one's hand was crushed. It's now paralyzed. In vain, the dead man's mother begged for help with burial expenses. Only after a long struggle and legal aid did she get 100,000 taka, $1,453, a cheap price for a life.
After sustaining serious injuries, another worker said:
"I was struck and knocked down to the ground. I was unconscious. I was admitted to the Chittagong Al Sattar Hospital....My backbone is broken and my head was badly injured. Now my bodily organs are not functioning. I feel nothing in my chest or back....I cannot feel my stomach....I wish I could move like I did before."
He demanded justice for his injuries, and doctors said he had a chance with proper treatment. Surgery, however, would cost 750,000 taka, $10,900, a cost the shipyard wouldn't pay. Instead, they let him rot in bed with no end in sight for his misery.
Another worker said:
"We are fighting with death always. This is not work. This is a place of punishment and death....We can't afford food, so how are we going to see a doctor and purchase medicines."