Bangladesh Shipbreaking Industry Exposed 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



“Sham” self-certification documentation clandestine ownership by offshore companies, and breaches of international conventions and national regulations continue to endanger Bangladeshi shipbreaking workers and communities, according to articles published last month (December 2020).1 The commercial exploitation of regulatory loopholes combined with large financial incentives are a toxic combination attracting international customers to scrap surplus tonnage at beaching yards in Bangladesh, the top ship-recycling country in the world. With ill-informed government officials, a lack of testing capacity and the non-existence of health and safety regulation of the informal sector – in which a sizable proportion of shipbreaking operatives work – shipowners as well as shipbreaking companies remain immune from prosecution for injuries or contamination caused by their business practices.

Whilst there are potentially many toxins to be found in vessels destined for Bangladesh, asbestos is amongst the most common. Although a typical merchant vessel could contain 10 tonnes of asbestos-containing material in engine rooms, fuel lines, sea water lines and fireproofing material, certificates collected by journalists Mostafa Yousuf and Margot Gibbs which were submitted by shipowners for 28 vessels denied the presence of any asbestos whatsoever stating: “the ship contained no hazardous materials on board, including ‘nil’ asbestos.” With no government inspections and a workforce cowered by the threat of unemployment, no one is likely to contradict these falsehoods. By the time workers exposed at the yards succumb to asbestos-related diseases, there is no redress to be had, not from their employers, shipowners or the government. The full burden of the disease, including the medical and economic costs as well as the pain and suffering, is borne by the injured and their families.

Almost ten years after the Government was commanded by the Supreme Court to introduce rules mandating that vessels destined for Bangladesh be pre-cleaned prior to their arrival, in reality, nothing has changed. Rules which ban the import of vessels containing hazardous materials are easily circumvented by the submission of worthless documents – categorized as “rubbish” by European ship-recycling experts – to the Ministry of Environment. Privately, government officials who accept that the current system is not fit for purpose, admit they do not currently have the means or capacity to challenge shipowners’ declarations.

A 2019 ruling by the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh found that import documents which cleared a toxic vessel – an aging oil tanker called the North Sea Producer – for scrapping in 2016 were “superficially prepared” or “fabricated.” The case had been brought by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) whose director Syeda Rizwana Hasan reacted to the judgment as follows:

“Officials have been allowing vessels to enter Bangladesh knowing full well that the country has no preparation to deal with the waste. It's time to go heavily against such malpractices to ensure that cash buyers and their allies in the government are held liable if they continue to resort to their heinous tactics…. Cash buyers are hiding behind anonymously owned offshore companies so we can't hold them liable for the damage they cause.”

Singling out a document supplied by a company from the Caribbean tax haven of St. Kitts and Nevis incorrectly certifying that the tanker had “nil” asbestos and no hazardous materials onboard, the Supreme Court noted that 500 kg of asbestos-containing material had been removed from the vessel and illegal levels of radioactive waste had been found.

It is not just the bottom line that multinational shipping firms consider when deciding the final resting place of their fleets; ensuring that their public image is not adversely affected by unsavoury and potentially illegal behaviour is also a priority. To this end, it has become common practice to off-load end-of-life vessels via cash buyers – whose ownership remains shrouded in mystery – despite multilateral treaties, national regulations and judicial rulings intended to promote responsible and safe disposal. The North Sea Producer was owned and operated within the EU, a signatory to the Basel Convention under which the “transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and other wastes … obliges its Parties to ensure that such wastes are managed and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.” With this in mind Ingvild Jensen, Director of the EU-based NGO Shipbreaking Platform, condemned the actions which resulted in the North Sea Producer winding up on a beach in Chattogram:

“European ship owners send their end-of-life tonnage to the beaching yards because that is where they can make the highest profit. They ought to know that their vessels contain numerous toxic materials, including asbestos, and that the conditions at the shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh are appalling. This exploitation of poor coastal communities is for the financial benefit of an already wealthy shipping industry.2

January 27, 2021


1 Yousuf, M., Gibbs, M. Toxic ships sail in on false papers. December 19, 2020.
Gibbs, M. How offshore companies import deadly asbestos into Bangladesh. December 19, 2020.
Also see: Occupational safety of ship breaking workers. October 13, 2020.

2 Thomas, A. Beaching of UK North Sea vessel in Bangladesh ruled as illegal. November 20, 2019.
Press Release – NGOs win FPSO North Sea Producer case. November 19, 2019.



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