VICE – The Deadly Shipbreaking Yards of Chittagong

(Written by Liza Jansen)

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6 August 2014 -

34-year-old Massood is skinny, but muscular. His hands and arms are dotted with deep, jagged scars, the so-called “Chittagong tattoos”. From the look in his eyes you can tell he is physically exhausted. I can 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. He starts work when the sun rises at and spends the next 12, sometimes 14 hours a day labouring while being intimidated by an angry boss. The work is tough, the heat burns and there is no shade in sight.

Massood meets us on a square in the centre of Chittagong after the sun has set, marking the end of a day’s work. It’s rush hour and drivers of tuktuks, rickshaws and buses permanently sounding their horns. The noise is so deafening we can hardly hear Massood talk and he struggles to raise his voice.

He’s been working in the yards for fifteen 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 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 labour and environmental laws are not taken too strictly and cheap labour is abundant. Every day more than 30,000 workers are risking their lives for little more than £1 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. Instead they scrap the ships with their bare hands holding acetylene torches.

Shipbreaking Platform, an NGO which advocates the labourers rights, has hailed the work as “modern day slavery” and estimates about 20 percent of the workers are under 15.

An estimated 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 estimated 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 in April four labourers were killed and three got seriously injured.

These numbers, however, do not take into account all the workers that succumb to the asbestos, lead, PCB’s and other toxic, carcinogenic substances that get released when the ships are broken down and are inhaled on a daily basis. Lung cancer is common and the average life span of the workers is just 40.

“Every day I go to work thinking I might die,” Massood says. He witnessed his dad, who joined Massood in the yards later on, die at an explosion. He has also seen several of his colleagues becoming the victim of explosions, which happen when gas cylinders explode or when there’s a gas leak, and other accidents, for example when a steel plate falls which crushes people to death.

“It’s a knockout game.” Massood says. He says he has 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 cannot 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 wide international criticisms 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 facemask on, the business the ship breaking 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 (£880 million) and employs a total of about 200,000 people in Bangladesh. The scrapping is the country’s main source of steel and reduces the need to import the material. The Bangladesh government collects an estimated £70 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. Muhammed Ali Shahin, from YPSA, said he expects the industry to become more agressive, competitive and more polluting in the coming years.

Bangladesh does not abide with international laws on transboundary 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 prioritises the profit instead.

Last October, rules were implemented by the European Parliament banning the breaking of ships carrying an EU flag on beaches where working conditions are poor, like those in Asia. In practice these rules however don’t mean much, as 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 1213 large commercial ships were dismantled globally. More than half of these ships were discarded on beaches in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where labour and environmental laws are hardly looked after, accounting for 71 percent of the tonnage being dismantled in the world, according to Shipbreaking Platform.

In Turkey and China ships are dismantled in a more environmentally friendly way. It is strictly monitored that as little toxics as possible leak into the sea and labour laws are more regulated. This however means less money can be made from the scrapping, making Turkey and China less popular destinations for shipbreakers.

When getting 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 headscarf. “They cannot steal the sea from us,” the fisherman says. The closest we get to the yards is passing a ship that has drifted from the beach. Workers wave enthusiastically when they spot a foreigner in the motorboat, until an angry man, presumably their boss, orders the men to get back to work.

The life of the workers is tough and often unjust. Few, however, 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.