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American Workers’ Compensation – A System to Be Grateful For?

When a worker is injured, becomes ill or is killed as a result of work, that person is eligible for Workers’ Compensation benefits. These programs are run by the states, and each state has their own laws regarding compensation levels and procedures. However, this right is not enjoyed worldwide.

Countries with less protection look very different.  The laborers in Bangladesh’s ship-breaking yards are of the millions of people working, with very little protection, in dirty and dangerous conditions.  According to a National Geographic May 2014 article “The Ship-Breakers,” the process of scrapping ships in the underdeveloped subjects workers, often under the age of 15, to toxic metals and paint particles, such as asbestos and lead.  Asbestos was popular in the creation of ships because it is resistant to many physical elements, such as fire, heat, electrical, and chemical damage.  However, prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. 16% of these ship-breakers suffer from asbestosis.  Lead, often found in the heavy metals ships are made of, is similarly hazardous, causing harm to the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive and nervous systems. The young children playing and working near the yards are particularly prone to the damaging neurological affects of lead poisoning; lead causes potentially permanent learning and behavioral disorders.  What’s more, workers are up to their knees in the polluted mud all day, using brute strength and outdated machines to tear down and transport the thousand-pound-plus ship parts for recycling.  The situation in Bangladesh is so devastating, Bob Simon of CBS News reported that “[the Bangladeshi yards] could be as close as you’ll get to hell on earth, with the smoke, the fumes, and the heat.” Sadly, for 90 workers in the last eight years, this hell on earth was their last worldly destination.

Despite the sickness, death, and all around filth, Bangladeshi yards remain highly lucrative for a select few. In three to four months, the average yard returns roughly a one-million-dollar profit on an investment of five million (Ship-Breakers, National Geographic). Still, workers are paid just a few dollars per day. Given their desperation for work, the yardmen put up with the physically and emotionally hazardous environment, often being intimidated to keep silent about on-the-job accidents. Mahabub, a 40-year-old man who realized working at the yard wasn’t worth the risk “didn’t even collect [his] paycheck for fear [his boss] wouldn’t let [him] leave” (Ship-Breakers, National Geographic). Many of Mahabub’s family members, and hundreds of ship-breakers live with deep scars, missing limbs, cancer, and serious damage to the nervous and respiratory systems.  I don’t know what legal action can be taken for such injuries.  I imagine little or none.

The hazardous waste does not only affect workers in the ship-breaking yards. The pollutants dumped in the waters and on the beaches at the yards reach the surrounding communities, poisoning women and children. An activist with the NGO Shipbreaking Platform asked, “Why is it OK for poor workers to risk their lives to dispose of [the West’s] unwanted ships [in Bangladesh]?” These kinds of working and living conditions would never be allowed in the States.

The United States has a system to protect workers injured on the job. Workers’ Compensation helps finance the appropriate medical care, lost wages, and often times, pain and suffering to the injured person.  Temporary disability benefits and permanent partial disability benefits are not necessarily ideal.  But even though it may not be a perfect system, it’s one to be grateful for in hearing about how brutal working conditions are in other parts of the world.