Treated like slaves | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 20, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 20, 2011

Treated like slaves

Workers toil in ship-breaking hazards, hardly get compensated if accident strikes

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At exactly 9:00am yesterday, a day after deaths of four workers, the main gate of MAK Corporation ship-breaking yard in Sitakunda remained closed and strictly guarded. It took heavy persuasion with guards and officials to gain access to the yard that witnessed one of the loudest explosions in the history of the ship-breaking yards.
Despite deaths, injuries, miseries and orders from the High Court, the issues of workers' safety and environmental protection did not seem to be on the list at the yard.
On the vast yard two gigantic ships, including the fateful Pranam, were beached for dismantling. The waters of the Bay had receded with the low tide, exposing the beach further down. Water was littered with debris and patches of oil were visible.
Scores of bare-footed teenage workers, clad in lungi, toiled through the long sandy beach carrying heavy pieces of metal from the two ships. There were no traces of any safety gears for the workers, who, as they worked, looked extremely worried. The young men constantly looked back at the ship nearby that took the lives of at least four of their colleagues less than 24 hours ago.
The front side of the gigantic Pranam was badly burned and twisted metal rose from its hull. It strongly bore the evidence of the huge blast that could be heard from as far as two miles away.
Jashim, the top security man of the company, remained loyal to his employer. He said accidents might happen anytime anywhere, but a vested quarter is trying to destroy the ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh.
"Our owner always looks after the workers. He will duly compensate the relatives of the victims who died yesterday," he added.
About a mile away in Bogula Bazar, a crowd of men and women gathered at Rana Ahmed's tin-roofed rented house. Rana, 21, was one of the four men killed in Tuesday's blast. His mother, having lost one of her four children, was numb and speechless. His father had gone to fetch their son's body from Chittagong Medical College Hospital. Neighbours, all scratching a livelihood from one or the other of 100 ship-breaking yards in Sitakunda, converged at the house to console the family.
"The blast was so huge that nearby houses shook violently and family crockery fell off the shelves," said Rana's elder brother Raju Ahmed.
"As soon as the blast occurred, my mother ran out to the street calling out my brother's name," Raju said.
"Somehow she anticipated that something bad had happened to Rana," Raju said. "Within minutes we knew three people including Rana were taken to the hospital."
The crowd soon grew impatient. A woman, identifying herself as a neighbour and mother of a worker, said justice is never delivered for thousands of workers in the industry who contribute significantly to the country's development.
"They will not compensate us for the lives of our children. They will only intimidate us if we demand justice," she said.
"Why should they take more than 24 hours to hand over the dead bodies?" the angry woman asked.
According to the National Labour Law 2006, in case of accidental death of a worker, the employer has to pay the near relative through a labour court TK 1 lakh and Tk 1.25 lakh for the injured victim who becomes physically handicapped.
But at the Sitakunda ship-breaking yards there is no thumb rule for the compensation of the injured or dead workers.
"If a case is filed following an accident, the labour court realises the money from the employer and hands it over to the victim," said a lawyer in Chittagong.
"But the procedures are painstaking and time consuming," he said, adding, "In many cases we never know about the accidents inside the restricted and well-guarded yards."
A few yards away from Rana's house another victim Liton lived in a Tk 800-a-month house with his wife and daughter. At around 10:00am the family had left for CMCH to bring back their loved one's body.
"Liton was an experienced cutter-man and a very hard worker. We do not know how his wife and child will survive," said Abdul Quddus, a welder of another ship-breaking yard.
The most vivid description of the blast came from the maternal uncle of Rana, who was in the vicinity at that time. He said the explosion was so big that it shook the earth as if a tremor hit the area.
"I looked at the source and saw debris flying and most surprisingly I saw a human flung to the sky," he said.
The person who was thrown 100 metres away by the blast was Miraj, a teen-age boy who joined the company just three days earlier.
Miraj's brother-in-law Babul, who works as a security guard at a nearby yard, received his body at around 12:00noon yesterday and was on his way to Char Fashion, Bhola for burial.
"The owner gave us Tk 28,000 for the transport cost," said Babul.
Another victim Jubayed Hossain was assisting Liton cutting the ship. His elder brother was on his way to Netrokona with his brother's body yesterday.
"My brother joined MAK just over two months ago. I do not know what I will tell my parents back home," said Junayed.
According to media reports, 30 workers were killed and 16 maimed in Sitakunda ship-breaking yards in the last 21 months.

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