Ship breakers are steadfast in their demands to cancel a policy that denies the entry of ships with toxic elements, but environmentalists are viewing this as an acid test for the government's firmness to save the environment.
The stalemate in the ship-breaking sector set in after the government issued a statutory regulatory order (SRO) on January 26, amending the import policy that makes it mandatory for ship importers to submit pre-cleaning certificates for ship imports.
A certificate ensures that a ship, which is going to enter the country's maritime territory, does not contain toxic elements.
But after enforcement of the SRO, ship breakers called a strike on February 21 at the ship breaking yards and also stopped the supply of scrap to the re-rolling mills, saying the labour intensive sector will lose global competitiveness if the SRO remains. The strike was called off on Thursday, giving the government a week to cancel the SRO. The workers of the yards also joined the strike.
The ship breakers are the major suppliers of scrap to over 250 local re-rolling mills.
They said it was not possible to manage a pre-cleaning certificate from the ship owners as ship ownership changes from time to time. They argued that as a ship moves from sea to sea, it will be difficult for an owner to clean the ship.
"If a ship of Greek ownership is sold to a Bangladeshi buyer when it is at the Mumbai Port, the ship will have to go to Greece to manage a cleaning certificate," said Anam Chowdhury, a consultant of Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association (BSBA).
He said the whole process will make ship-breaking costly for Bangladesh and shift the business away.
"It is a global conspiracy to soil the prospective ship breaking industry of Bangladesh," BSBA Vice President Kamal Uddin told The Daily Star by phone on Sunday.
Chowdhury said: "As ship breaking is emerging as a prospective sector globally, some European countries also started the trade.”
“But since they won’t buy ships at the high rate we purchase at, they began conspiring against us," he claimed.
The ship-scrapping site on the stretch of beaches at Sitakunda in Chittagong is the largest ship breaking industry in the world that engages some 30,000 workers. The country imported 172 ships for breaking last year while the number was 200 in 2008.
The $700 million industry produces 15 lakh tonnes of scrap a year.
While the Basel Convention, which is ratified by Bangladesh, prohibits inter-boundary movement of toxic elements and sludge, such as mercury and asbestos, Chowdhury said, the International Maritime Organisation sponsored the controversial treaty on ship breaking that allows trans-boundary movement of such wastes.
The 'Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships 2009' attracted huge criticism from environmentalists and labour leaders, as an unclean ship provides an inventory of hazardous materials aboard before it is sent for recycling.
On the plus, the convention calls for workers to be equipped with a wide range of protective gear that the ship breakers do not follow.
"After buying a ship, we have to give it to a contactor for dismantling. They engage workers to do it. So the responsibility lies on the contactor to manage all kinds of safety equipment and training," the BSBA vice president said.
He said ship breakers provide millions of dollars in duties to the government, which should be used by the government to establish training facilities for the workers.
Lambasting ship breakers for their contribution to sea and environment pollution, environmentalists welcomed the SRO and urged the government not to succumb to pressure from the breakers.
They said no ship breaking yard in Chittagong has any environmental clearance to operate and they discharge different toxic elements into the seas and cause damage to marine life.
Citing a report styled 'The Human Cost of Breaking Ships' published in December 2008, simultaneously from Bangladesh, India and Switzerland, at least 1,000 workers died in the last 20 years in Bangladesh's ship-breaking yards. The figures do not include the deaths from diseases caused by toxic fumes and the materials workers are exposed to all the time.
"It is an international practice that ship owner should clean the ship before sale for dismantling," said Mohammad Ali Shahin, Bangladesh Coordinator of NGO Platform on Shipbreaking.
He said four to five countries are major players in the global ship breaking industry, with Bangladesh ranking first in 2009. Other countries include India, China, Vietnam and Pakistan.
"All the countries, excluding Bangladesh, buy clean ships," said Shahin, adding that the guidelines to scraping old ships are very strict in China.
He said as Bangladesh is the leading ship breaker, the country can take a leading role in global practices on ship breaking.
Environmental activists also found it very peculiar that ship breakers are tense over importing ships with pre-cleaning certificates, although it lies mainly on the ship owners.
The import of ships with toxic sludge on board should not be allowed as it causes fatal accidents, such as explosions during breaking of the ships, causing human casualties, they added.
Taslima Islam, senior lawyer of Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (BELA), said ship breaking is a dangerous job that causes huge fatalities every year. In the last 11 years till 2009, there were 60 reported deaths at shipyards, she said. "But many deaths go unreported and those who die from injuries at shipyards, are not included in the toll."
Besides, explosions cause impacts on the workers that they bear till the last day of their lives.
"The element asbestos is so lethal that if any worker inhales it even once, he will certainly be affected by cancer later in life," she said.
A worker at a ship breaking yards said, "As gas is invisible, we have to understand through smell whether any unit of a ship contains explosive gases. Only with many years of experience, a skilled worker can understand whether the ship contains explosive gases. But often, newer workers fail to detect the presence of gases, causing explosions."
He also said the ship breakers compelled the workers to join the protests against the government and NGOs to cancel the SRO.
But Taslima Islam of BELA said: “We are not against breaking ships. We want that the workers can work in a clean environment.”