THE High Court’s asking for reports from the government on its actions taken and compensations paid after the death of 183 workers in shipbreaking yards accidents in Chattogram is welcome, as there are widespread concern that the government and its agencies concerned have not so far been able to properly intervene into the hazardous industry. The court on Tuesday directed the government to submit the report by January 5, detailing environmental clearance compliance by shipbreaking yards and explaining whether any impartial committee was formed to investigate the accidents. At least 68 workers were also injured in 195 accidents in 83 shipbreaking yards in 2009–2019. The figure of deaths and injuries, other studies show, could be higher as a non-governmental organisation said that more than 200 workers had died in the 15 years in shipbreaking yards while at least 45 workers, as the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments says, died only in three years.
Labour rights activists have for long criticised the government, and rightly so, for its brazen failure to implement the High Court directives given in March 2009 to regulate the shipbreaking industries and ensure worker safety, which could have arrested the deaths of so many workers. The industry, which began its journey in the 1980s but came to be regulated in 2011, has grown in its scope but is described by the International Labour Organisation to be dangerous for workers and the environment. Bangladesh has, in fact, become the largest shipbreaking centre, employing more than 50,000 workers, as about 230 ships are broken down every year along a stretch of about 25 kilometres by the shore. But the industry has reportedly failed to make any progress in worker safety and has become a hub of systematic violations of labour and environment laws. Old ships are imported without pre-cleaning or removal of toxic gases and dangerous materials, in breach of laws, which often cause accidents and jeopardise worker’s health. Workers in the industry, different studies reveal, die from explosions or after coming in contact with toxic materials, including carbon monoxide, lead, cadmium and arsenic, or falling from height with no safety gear on. The industry is also responsible for marine pollution and hazardous waste dumping.
The government and its agencies must, in view of the gravity of the situation, put in proper regulatory steps to stop the violation of labour and environment laws. Vested interests coming at play in the industry must be handled stringently. While some Asian countries are putting in money to upgrade the industry by ensuring the protection of worker’s lives and health and the environment, Bangladesh lagging behind is unacceptable. The government must, therefore, follow the standards set by international waste management laws and labour conventions to make the industry safe for all.
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