Chittagong Ship Breaking Yards are the world second biggest and are situated mostly between the towns Bhatiara and Sitakunda, along 20 kilometers northwest from Chittagong, Bangladesh.Imagine a magnificent long beach, where instead of tourists and parasols there are huge old ships, or rather their wrecks, scattered chaotically. During the low tide, they remain in the mud, all of them inclined to all sides, similar to some surrealistic sculptures. The essence of dramatism is added to the landscape by the army of Bengali workers, who, equipped with hammers and torch-lamps and using their raw physical force, disintegrate to pieces the gigantic metallic trunks of the ships.
In the 60’s of the last century, the ship scrapping was an industry developed in countries like USA, Germany and UK, But in the 80’s, this dirty business moved to the third world countries, especially to India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh as well as to the coasts of West Africa. According to statistics, currently more than 100,000 workers are employed in the ship scrapping industry, and annually about 700 ships undergo scrapping procedure.
Such ships have appeared on Chittagong beaches since 1970, but the real boom occurs only in 2008, when the World Bank statistics counts about 30 000 workers directly employed in this business and other 200 000 related indirectly to it. The lower cost of labour, the weak labour laws and the widespread corruption are among the main driving forces of this industry. Gradually, Bangladesh is transformed into a mecca for the ship recycling and is known for its acceptance of all kinds of ships, even for those of them with denied access elsewhere. Thus, these magnificent exotic coasts are turned into the world trash can for ship scrap.
However, soon the human price of this flourishing state comes into focus. The information about the inhuman working conditions on the sites presents itself, indicating the lowest possible salaries (US $85 and US $170 per month) while the working hours are the longest possible, as well as evidences for absence of any protective equipment and for the fact that many of these workers are children below age of 15. Moreover, the significant environmental pollution becomes more and more evident.
Workers have limited access to medical care, emergency assistance, or indemnification in case of accident or death. If worker gets injured during work, he is treated on place. In case this injury turns out to be serious and leads to disability, the worker receives between 10 000 and 15 000 taka (1 USD=71 taka). However, very often the worker doesn’t get even that, if no one defends his rights.
Extras like payment for overtime do not exist, because working day is “fixed” from sunrise until sunset or at night. Therefore, no safety at work and no work guaranteed. Perhaps, it doesn’t make sense to mention here that workers are not allowed to participate in syndicates nor in any unions.
In the town of Kamira, both my guide and I decide to go to the bridge which gets into the sea. This is the only free of supervision place in the entire region, where two of the recycling sites could be seen from, albeit from afar.
All boat owners kindly declined our request to take us for a drive to the ships from the sea side. They said it was absolutely forbidden for them to drive foreigners, white withal and equipped with big cameras. In general, they refused all kind of information and tried to avoid us by all possible means.
The first access limitations to these places date from 2006, after emission of the short movie of Bob Simon, a journalist of CBS, which was dedicated to Chittagong Ship Breaking Yards. Reactions of the global community are not late. Many organizations working on protection of human rights and environment start to actively keep an eye on what happens on those beaches, which on the other hand, provokes owners to react by building solid fences, by installing security cameras, and all that leads to almost impossible access.
By the doors of one of the sites I see a few young men teasing and talking excitedly. I come nearer and greet them. I don’t have too much time to chat with them, because we are just beneath the security cameras at the entrance of the site and I expect at any moment some guard to dash out of the security booth and to chase me away. Nevertheless, I somehow manage to take some pictures and to ask people whether they use some protective clothing or equipment. The only thing they do is to smile to me and I guess they even don’t get what I asked them (aided by my guide). They know they work in a hazardous environment, but it seems that for them, the idea that they could protect themselves or that they have some rights on that matter was quite alien.
During the last 20 years, 400 workers have died due to occupational accidents and the injured are more than 6000. The last accident happened on April 4th, 2014, when Bangladesh media report about 4 people killed following an explosion of toxic gas on the recycling site of Sitakunda. With them, the victims only for the last 2 years become 44. There is no doubt that recycling of old ships in Chittagong is life threatening activity and various toxic materials and gases, which cause all kinds of diseases and occupational accidents, contribute to that.
The Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP’s) are among the most toxic substances, which do not decompose naturally. They pollute the soil and aquatic environment and could be found in the food as well. Analyses show that they accumulate mostly in human and animal adipose tissues and are among the main causes for the more frequent cases of cancer and hormonal disorders.
Asbestos is the other very toxic waste from the ships. It was found that even in low concentration the asbestos intoxication leads to asbestosis and cancer.
The environment around is empoisoned by heavy metals, gas oil and other petrol waste products and oils. During low tide, ships remain in the mud which looks like a poisoned swamp. Very often, birds are trapped in there, that’s why they avoid these places. Generally, the bio-diversity is highly affected, which turns this region into one of the black ecological holes on the planet.
Fish is the main food for a large population, but due to the high concentration of ammonia in the sea water around the recycling sites, all the aquatic organisms have higher pH and definitely higher concentrations of toxic substances.
However, the people I could talk to were not very critical about that. They did not complain. They agree that some improvements are required, but generally I felt they were rather satisfied by the possibility to work and to earn money, no matter how poor it is. Experts of the based in Brussels nongovernmental organisation “Delphine Reuter of the Shipbreaking Platform” describe the ship recycling in Chittagong as “close to slavery”. Unfortunately, the place and the time do not offer to local people anything better than that, and the idea for justice on these places is far more different than the one in Brussels. Either way, people here are rather grateful for any possibility to survive even if it is the most unjust in the world and shrouded in asbestos fumes.
After we have walked on the bridge in Kumira and have shot whatever we could, we headed for another village, where I thought we could find a way through the fences. The CNG left us in front of the doors of the local recycling site. As I was already tired from this cat-and-mouse game with the guards, I just ran along the fence to the beach, where several inclined ships could be seen.
I started to frenetically photograph while waiting at any moment the guards to catch me. Ten minutes later I saw them coming and as any contact with them was unwanted and definitely undesired, both my guide and I ran back to the road through the toxic swamps. We got smeared up to the neck, but I was happy. While the whole evening I was cleaning out the dirt and the mud from my clothing and shoes, I just couldn’t stop thinking about the thousands of workers who were everyday soaked in there. I was amazed by the resistance of the human body and wondered how much poison and injustice it could bear.
Most of the ships “live” several decades and finally end up as scrap. Тhen, these veterans are sent to the beautiful (in the past) beaches and armies of workers dash for them, hungry for steel, ship furniture and everything that could be sold. Steel is the main subject of recycling, and all the rest is sold as souvenirs or for another use, in hundreds of shops along the road.
45% of all the ships in the world end up their lives in Bangladesh. Bigger companies disintegrate 2 or 3 vessels at the same time. The average ship tonnage is between 5000 and 40 000 tons. For example, tankers of about 7000 to 8000 tons are disintegrated for 4 to 6 months, and the biggest cargo ships for 8 to 9 months. In 2010, 79 new scrap companies have been registered along the beach of Sitakunda, 61 of them working actively. At any moment, about 30 ships are wharfed between the cities of Bhatiara and Sitakunda.
However, in 2009 the nongovernmental organisation “Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA)” manages to convince the Supreme Court in Dhaka to forbid the activity of the recycling companies, which do not comply with ecological and labour standards.
The weird thing was that against this decision came up actively about 10 000 families, which showed up before the court building protesting against these prohibitions, which would bereave them of livelihood. The balance is delicate, and the decisions are complicate and difficult.
Another decree of the Supreme Court in Dhaka orders that ships sent for recycling should first be cleaned from toxic materials. But quite another matter is whether this decree and the other similar ones are observed. The weak control and the widespread corruption most likely send these papers in the trash can, thus making Bangladesh attractive final destination for the world ship scrap.
Whether due to these prohibitions or rather because of the world economic stagnation, by the end of 2010 the growth rates of the industry decrease. Meanwhile, the fences of these sites become higher and more inaccessible, and the security cameras more modern.
One of the main reasons for the owners to be afraid of this publicity are the children below age of 15, who work there under the same harsh conditions as their adult colleagues and who earn for their work maximum 2 dollars per day. Children work from morning till night or night shifts and mostly help in cutting with gas cutters the steel pieces or carry metal debris from one place to another.
In one of its researches in 2003, the organisation YPSA (Young Power in Social Action) asserts that 10.94% of all the workers in recycling sites are children below 18.
Often, large families don’t have money enough to support their children, even less to let them go to school. This way, many of them are found on the job market and a significant part starts working on the ship recycling sites. I personally couldn’t talk to these children, but I saw them working on the ships. My guide told me that many of them actually don’t have any idea what else they could do, as this reality is what they only know.
The sad thing is that their parents as well know only this reality, as no other possibilities exist for them. Children are hired mostly from the northern regions of Bangladesh but there are local as well.
Bangladesh has signed United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The state has many laws protecting the children, as for instance Chapters 14 and 15 of the Constitution, which guarantee their social rights. Act 34 of the same Constitution forbids children to exercise hard and hazardous work. This category includes work in recycling sites, together with 11 more jobs, specified according to the classification of the organisation “Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BASF)”. Despite the activity of organizations like UNICEF or “Delphine Reuter of the Shipbreaking Platform”, 5 millions of children under 15 years of age work in Bangladesh and it seems there is no power that can stop that.
I would call ridiculous irony the fact that Chittagong Ship Breaking Yards is a popular place used by local and international film industry as a set-scene for mega film productions. It is brutal to have this beach as fabulous set-scene and source of millions for some people, while for others it is a real hell.
In the next days, I keep on searching holes in the fences of recycling sites, and both my guide and I walk almost the whole 30-kilometer distance along the beaches. Tired from the road dirt and a bit discouraged, we sit in an unwelcoming bar on the beach Patenga near Chittagong, staring at the distant ship wrecks in the mud. The local dodgers offer us a drive with motor boat to this place but ask a solid amount. They know that people like me often agree to pay such money. Obviously, I was not the only one who wanted this. They even have organized a cartel and our attempts to find some lower price just made them laugh, because all of them have agreed on asking the same price from the white strangers. I didn’t pay. I thought I’ve seen enough. The only thing to sorry for was the impossibility to talk more with the workers.
While I was drinking my tea in the bar, I was wondering whether these workers have some real benefit from all those conventions and laws and from the dozens of organizations working for improvement of the working conditions in these companies.
The most important document in this field is the Hong Cong Convention, regulating the safety and the environmental protection during ship recycling, which has been signed by 65 countries on May 15th, 2009. Another important document is the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, enforced in 1992.
The so-called “Strategy for better ship dismantling practices”, adopted by the European Union in 2009 as a continuation of the signed in 2007 “Green charter for better ship dismantling practices” makes part of the European legislation which aims to contribute for more human and protective working conditions in this industry. The most likely reason for these documents is the fact that a large part of the ships recycled in Chittagong Ship Breaking Yards belongs to European companies.
Influential organizations like The International Labour Organization (ILO), the nongovernmental organization “Platform on Shipbreaking”, the International Ship Recycling Association (I.S.R.A), the “International Organization for Standardization (ISO), “The Industry Working Group on Ship Recycling” also work actively on the problems in the business of vessels recycling.
The list of organizations, conventions and laws is extended, varied and it seems that many people really carry about this matter. However, I remained with some vague doubt that all these efforts don’t make the lives of local people easier or better, or at least not better enough. But of course I could be unjust.
By the end of the day, we have been passed though the next hole in the fence and we were watching a group of men towing a huge ship chain in the mud, on the background of the sunset. That picture reminded me desperately the Repin’s painting “Volga boatmen”.
I imagined in this moment the 65 senior officials signing the Hong Kong Convention. I hope my suspicions are not true.
The last thing I saw before I left the area was a sign on the door of one of the recycling sites, which read: “No Child Labor. Safety First.” It was not written in Bengali, because obviously it did not affect local people. They perfectly knew that children don’t work there, so therefore it was meaningless to write it for them. On the other hand, one large part of them is analphabet or are children, who don’t have the chance to learn to read, so therefore there was no need at all to write this sign in local language.
It was in English for people like me, or for officials working in the aforementioned organizations, who create conventions and laws. I accepted it as a kind prompt to leave, with no more questions. And I left. Either way, there was nothing more for me to do here.