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Visiting the Deadly Shipbreaking Yards of Bangladesh

Bangladesh's shipbreaking industry poses threats to the environment and its workers' lives, but it makes a lot of money. Workers dream of escaping, but it's almost impossible to get out.

by Liza Jansen
Aug 6 2014, 8:00am

Ships on the Chittagong shoreline waiting to be broken down

Thirty-four-year-old Massood was skinny but muscular. His hands and arms were dotted with deep, jagged scars: the so-called Chittagong tattoos. From the look in his eyes, you could tell he was physically exhausted. I could see his bones shine through the linen shirt loosely dangling around his body. He spends his days dismantling ships on the beaches of Chittagong, the commercial heart of Bangladesh. Every morning he starts work when the sun rises and spends the next 12, or sometimes 14, hours laboring while being intimidated by an angry boss. The work is tough, the heat burns, and there is no shade in sight.

Massood met us on a square in the center of Chittagong after the sun had set, marking the end of a day’s work. It was rush hour and drivers of tuktuks, rickshaws, and buses were sounding their horns. The noise was so deafening that we could hardly hear Massood talk, and he struggled to raise his voice.

He'd been working in the yards for 15 years. When he was 19, a so-called shipyard recruiter came to collect him in the poor north of Bangladesh. His family’s land had just been flooded by the monsoon rains, and he was doomed to either let him and his family starve to death or join this man who promised him a job in the bustling, prosperous Chittagong. Massood had no other choice than to go with the man. In return for Massood, the recruiter gave his family a few ten-dollar notes.

Ever since, Massood has been trapped on one of the largest shipbreaking yards in the world. He breaks down the world’s biggest rusty, old supertankers, cargo ships, and cruises that have been made redundant for scrap recycling. But rather than being dismantled in an environmentally friendly way, they’re dumped on an eight-mile stretch of the coast of Chittagong, where labor and environmental laws are not taken too strictly and cheap labor is abundant. Every day, more than 30,000 workers are risking their lives for little more than $2.00 a day.

Although the yards claim all the necessary equipment is in place to provide workers with the protection they need, the workers say they don’t get any safety gear. They scrap the ships with their bare hands while holding acetylene torches.

Shipbreaking Platform, an NGO that advocates for laborers' rights, has called the work "modern-day slavery" and estimates that about 20 percent of the workers are under 15.

Some 150 to 200 ships get stranded on Chittagong’s coast annually. According to official figures, 20 workers died in the yards in 2013, but the actual death toll is believed to be much higher, as most workers have never been officially registered. Incidents are by and large not reported by the shipyard’s managers, who prefer to turn their backs on the accidents. Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), a local watchdog group, estimates at least one worker dies each week. Shipbreaking Platform reported that four laborers were killed and three were seriously injured by a gas cylinder explosion in April of this year.

These numbers, however, do not take into account all the workers who succumb to the toxic or carcinogenic substances that get released when the ships are broken down—substances like asbestos, lead, and PCBs. Lung cancer is common, and the average life span of the workers is only 40 years.

Massood hard at work with one of the dangerous acetylene torches

“Every day I go to work thinking I might die,” Massood said. His dad, who joined Massood in the yards late in his life, died in an explosion that Massood witnessed. He has also seen several of his colleagues fall victim to explosions, caused by ruptures in gas cylinders. Steel plates sometimes fall and crush people to death.

“It’s a knockout game,” Massood said. He's gotten used to the fear and accidents in the yards.

Massood is permanently surrounded by the smell of asbestos. His food, which mostly consists of vegetables—he could not remember when he last ate meat—tastes like asbestos. His clothes smell like it, as does his house, which is a bamboo hut in the shantytowns behind the yards.

Despite widespread international criticism of the working conditions in the yards, the industry is one of the lifelines of the Bangladesh economy. As you drive towards the yards in a three-wheeled tuktuk with an air-pollution mask on, the business the shipbreaking generates is everywhere. Little shops sell stacks of cylinders, pipes, or turbines, while others have life jackets, buoys, and ships’ ropes on display.

The industry has an annual turnover of $1.5 billion and employs a total of about 200,000 people in Bangladesh. This scrapping is the country’s main source of steel and reduces the need to import the material. The Bangladesh government collects an estimated $130 million in revenue per year from the industry. And as the country’s economy continues to boom—Goldman Sachs has identified the Bangladesh economy as one of "the next eleven"—the demand for steel will grow and the number of ships in the Chittagong yards will continue to increase as well. YPSA's Muhammed Ali Shahin said he expects the industry to become more aggressive and competitive in the coming years. He also expects it to cause more pollution.

Bangladesh pays no attention to international laws on trans-boundary movement of hazardous wastes. In 2009, the High Court of Bangladesh said shipbreaking should be strictly regulated and could only take place in properly structured areas, such as docks, rather than on beaches. But the government does not enforce its own laws or listen to the orders of the High Court, according to the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA)—it prioritizes profit instead.

Last October, European Parliament banned the breaking of ships carrying an EU flag on beaches where working conditions are poor, like those in Asia. In practice, these rules don’t mean much—two thirds of ships dismantled on Asian beaches do not carry the European flag. Ship owners replace European flags by ones of a non-EU country, like Trinidad, Liberia, or Panama, allowing the ships to ignore EU rules.

In 2013, a total of 1,213 large commercial ships were dismantled globally. More than half of these ships were discarded on beaches in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, where labor and environmental laws are hardly looked after. These 1,213 ships account for 71 percent of the tonnage being dismantled in the world, according to Shipbreaking Platform.



Two ships on the beaches of Chittagong

In Turkey and China, ships are dismantled in a more environmentally friendly way. It is strictly monitored, so that as little toxic material as possible leaks into the sea and labor laws are followed more often. This means less money can be made from the scrapping, making Turkey and China less popular destinations for shipbreakers.

When I tried to get in touch with Jafar Alam, former chairman of the Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association, to get his side of the story, he abruptly hung up the phone. “I do not want to discuss this topic,” he said.

Due to increased international criticism over the years, a curtain has fallen over the industry. It once was a popular tourist attraction, but now visitors are shunned. The only way to get a sense of what the yards look like is by taking the boat of a local fisherman and touring the scene from the seaside while disguised with a head scarf. “They cannot steal the sea from us,” the fisherman said. The closest we got to the yards was passing a ship that had drifted from the beach. Workers waved enthusiastically when they spotted a foreigner in a motorboat, until an angry man, presumably their boss, ordered the men to get back to work.

The life of the workers is tough and often unjust. Few manage to escape. Most workers don’t have a choice and have never experienced another life. They’re happy they have a job, which means they don’t starve to death and are able to feed their wives and kids. Massood wishes he could escape, but deep down he knows that it's a false hope. The most he can wish for is that his wife and kids don’t lose him through an explosion.

Follow Liza Jansen on Twitter.

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