Shipbreakers in Bangladesh win right to sue UK owners in landmark ruling


In the first ruling of its kind by a court, British shipping companies that sell old vessels to be scrapped cheaply in dangerous, low-paid conditions in South Asia, may now be sued in London for workers’ deaths or injuries.

The court of appeal of England and Wales has held that a shipping company in London selling a vessel in Bangladesh, India or Pakistan could owe a legal “duty of care” to shipbreaking workers.

The ruling means that Hamida Begum, whose husband Khalid Mollah, fell to his death in 2018 while working high up on a 300,000-ton oil tanker on the beach at Chittagong, Bangladesh will now be able to sue the shipping company Maran (UK) in London.

But by putting the legal spotlight on the notoriously lax environmental and health and safety practices in Bangladesh, the ruling may open the gates for other cases and force Asian shipbreaking yards to improve working conditions.

The ruling follows decisions on two other long-running cases where impoverished communities in low-income countries were also given permission to sue multinational companies or their subsidiaries in London for alleged environmental pollution or damages.

Last month the supreme court ruled that a group of Nigerian farmers and fishers could sue Royal Dutch Shell in the English courts over pollution in a region where the Anglo-Dutch energy giant has a subsidiary. Shell had argued that it was not responsible.

In a second landmark ruling, the supreme court ruled in 2019 that Zambian villagers could sue UK-based mining conglomerate Vedanta in the English courts for alleged water pollution because, as the parent body of the mining company working in Zambia, it owed the villagers a duty of care and could be held responsible.

An estimated 216 workers have died in the past 15 years at the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong, including seven so far this year. Many more have been disabled or seriously injured.

Work in Chittagong is well-known for being precarious, dirty and dangerous, but shipping companies have been able to avoid responsibility by changing ownership of vessels at the last minute, and using tax havens and middlemen.

Hundreds of people, mostly without contracts, are injured or die every year in falls, explosions and accidents. The coastal environment is heavily polluted with oils, asbestos and dangerous chemicals and few people can work for more than a few years in the intense tropical heat without being physically injured. (Source: The Guardian)