Nearly a quarter of the total workforce in the ship-breaking industry in Chittagong is child labourers who are primarily used for the more hazardous jobs at the yards, a survey of two NGOs revealed this yesterday.
Young Power in Social Action (YPSA) and International Federation for Human Rights (Fidh) in the jointly prepared report, with technical support of NGO Platform on Ship Breaking, said at least 7,000 workers in the industry are below the age of 18.
Around 30,000 workers are employed in the ship-breaking yards of Chittagong.
Mohammad Ali Shahin, YPSA official and focal person of NGO Platform on Ship Breaking, while publishing the report at Dhaka Reporters Unity said, "Children are primarily used for cleaning toxic wastes including asbestos, black oil and PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) in tanks of ships which often have poisonous gases too."
He said, "Deaths and serious injuries caused by suffocation and explosion are regular phenomena at the yards."
Of the child labourers, around 15 to 20 percent are aged below 15 while 10 percent are below 12 years, said Shahin adding that ship breaking is one of the most hazardous and dangerous jobs in the world according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Since ship-breaking yards are restricted and often inaccessible, they survey was based on counting labourers on the ground and interviews, he said.
The Labour Law of 2006 is being violated at the yards blatantly. The labourers work without any safety gears and handle toxic substances with their bare hands. They neither have any job contracts nor health insurances, he said.
According to the ILO, a person is a child if the age is below 18 years. The Children Act 1974 of Bangladesh says that a person is a child if the age is below 16. However, Bangladesh Labour Law, 2006, says that a person is a child if his or her age is below 14.
The ship-breaking yards employ child labourers so that they can get away with paying very low wages, said Adilur Rahman Khan, secretary of rights organisation Odhikar, which was present at the Dhaka Reporters Unity.
Bangladesh ratified the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999, of ILO and is obligated to take immediate measures prohibiting and eliminating the worst forms of child labour.
The report quoted Factory Inspector Farid Ahmed of Inspection Department for Factories and Establishment as saying, "I have not seen any children or teenagers at the yards. We should have some of them checked by a doctor [to determine their age]."
Chief guest of the programme Prof Muzaffer Ahmad, chairman of Transparency International Bangladesh, said untreated toxic substances cleared from scrapped ships are causing severe water and air pollution which is destroying marine aquatic life and the fascinating coast line of Bangladesh.
Scrap-ships which have toxic wastes in them are procured mainly from European countries, said an YPSA official. According to the Basel Convention, trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste is forbidden. Scrap-ships can be brought and dismantled only after proper decontamination.