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Chittagong Ship Breaking Yards are the world's second biggest, situated mainly between the towns Bhatiara and Sitakunda, 20 kilometres northwest of Chittagong, Bangladesh.
Imagine a magnificent long beach, where old ships are scattered chaotically instead of tourists and parasols. During the low tide, they remain in the mud, all inclined to all sides, similar to some surrealistic sculptures. An army of Bengali workers, equipped with hammers and torch lamps, disintegrate to pieces the gigantic metallic trunks of the ships.
In the '60s of the last century, ship scrapping was an industry developed in countries like U.S.A., Germany and U.K. In the '80s, this dirty business moved to third-world countries, especially India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as to the coasts of West Africa. According to statistics, more than 100,000 workers are currently employed in the ship scrapping industry, and about 700 vessels undergo scrapping procedures annually.
Old ships for scrapping have appeared on Chittagong beaches since 1970. Still, the real boom occurred in 2008, when the World Bank statistics count about 30 000 workers directly employed in this business and 200 000 related 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 was transformed into a mecca for ship recycling. It is known for its acceptance of all kinds of ships, even for those who were denied access elsewhere. Thus, these magnificent exotic coasts are turned into the world's trash can for ship scrap.
But soon, the human cost of this business comes into focus. Information about the inhumane working conditions on the construction sites shows the lowest possible wages ($85 and $170 per month). Working hours are as long as possible. There is no protective equipment at all. Many of the workers are children under the age of 15. In addition, significant environmental pollution is becoming increasingly evident.
Workers have limited access to medical care, emergency assistance, or indemnification in case of accident or death. If a worker gets injured during work, he is treated in place. If this injury turns out to be severe and leads to disability, the worker receives between 10 000 and 15 000 taka. However, the worker often doesn't get even that if no one defends his rights.
Extras like payment for overtime do not exist because the working day is "fixed" from sunrise until sunset or at night. The workers are not allowed to participate in syndicates or unions.
My guide and I went to Kumira bridge, the only place without access restrictions in the entire region. The recycling sites could be seen, albeit from afar.
All boat owners kindly declined our request to take us for a drive to the ships. They said it was forbidden to drive white foreigners, especially those equipped with big cameras. They refused all kinds of information and tried to avoid us by all possible means.
The first access limitations to these places date from 2006, after the emission of the short movie of Bob Simon, a journalist of C.B.S., which was dedicated to Chittagong Ship Breaking Yards. Reactions did not delay. Many human rights and environmental organizations started actively monitoring what happens on those beaches. On the other hand, owners reacted by building solid fences and installing security cameras, all leading to almost impossible access.
I see a few young men teasing and talking excitedly by the doors of one of the sites. I came nearer and greeted them. I didn't have much time to chat with them because we are just beneath the security cameras at the site entrance.
Nevertheless, I somehow managed to take some pictures and asked people whether they used some protective clothing or equipment. The only thing they did was smile at me, and I guess they even didn't get what I asked (aided by my guide). They know they work in a hazardous environment, but for them, the idea of self-protection or having 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 previous accident happened on April 4th, 2014, when Bangladesh media reported about 4 people were 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 old ships in Chittagong is life-threatening activity.
The Persistent Organic Pollutants (P.O.P.'s) are among the most toxic substances which do not decompose naturally. They pollute the soil and aquatic environment and could also be found in food. Analyses show that they accumulate primarily in human and animal adipose tissues and are among the leading causes of more frequent cancer and hormonal disorders.
Asbestos is the other toxic waste from the ships, which, even in low concentrations, leads to asbestosis and cancer.
The environment 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, bio-diversity is highly affected, which turns this region into one of the black ecological holes on the planet.
Fish is the primary food for a large population. Still, due to the high concentration of ammonia in the seawater around the recycling sites, all the aquatic organisms have higher pH and concentrations of toxic substances.
However, the people I could talk to were not very critical about that. They did not complain. They agree that improvements are required. However, I felt they were satisfied by the possibility of working and earning money, no matter how dangerous this job might be. Experts of the Brussels nongovernmental organization "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 local people anything better than that, and the idea for justice in 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 had walked on the bridge in Kumira and shot whatever we could, we headed for another village, where I thought we could find a way through the fences. The C.N.G. 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 ran along the fence to the beach, where several inclined ships could be seen.
I started to frenetically photograph while waiting at any moment for the guards to catch me. Ten minutes later, I saw them coming. As any contact with them was unwanted and definitely undesired, 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 every day soaked in there. I was amazed by the human body's resistance and wondered how much poison and injustice it could bear.
Most ships "live" a few decades before ending 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.
45% of all the ships in the world end up their lives in Bangladesh. Larger companies disintegrate 2 or 3 vessels at the same time. The average ship tonnage is between 5000 and 40 000 tons. Tankers of about 7000 to 8000 tons are disintegrated for 4 to 6 months and the most giant cargo ships - for 8 to 9 months. In 2010, 79 new scrap companies were registered along the beach of Sitakunda. At any moment, about 30 vessels are dwarfed between the cities of Bhatiara and Sitakunda.
In 2009 the"Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (B.E.L.A.)" managed to convince the Supreme Court in Dhaka to forbid the activity of 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 complicated 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 into the trash can, thus making Bangladesh an attractive final destination for the world ship scrap.
By the end of 2010, the industry's growth rates had decreased. Meanwhile, the fences of these sites have become higher and more inaccessible, and the security cameras have become more sophisticated.
One of the main reasons for the owners to be afraid of this publicity is the children below the age of 15, who work there under the same harsh conditions as their adult colleagues and who earn a maximum of 2 dollars per day for their work. Children work from morning till night or night shifts and mainly help cut the steel pieces with gas cutters or carry metal debris from one place to another.
In one of its researches in 2003, the organization Y.P.S.A. (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 couldn't talk to these children, but I saw them working on the ships. My guide told me that many of them don't know 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 mainly from the northern regions of Bangladesh, but there are also locals.
Bangladesh has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (U.N.C.R.C.). The state has many laws protecting the children, such as 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 and 11 more jobs specified according to the organization's "Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (B.A.S.F.)". Despite organizations like UNICEF or "Delphine Reuter of the Ship-breaking Platform", 5 million children under 15 years of age work in Bangladesh, and it seems there is no power to stop that.
Ironically, Chittagong Ship Breaking Yards is a popular place used by the local and international film industry as a set scene for mega film productions. Having this beach as a fabulous set scene and source of millions for some people is brutal, while it is absolute hell for others.
For the following days, I kept searching for holes in the fences of recycling sites, and both my guide and I walked almost the whole 30-kilometre distance along the beaches. Tired from the road dirt and a bit discouraged, we sat in an unwelcoming bar on the beach Patenga near Chittagong, staring at the distant shipwrecks in the mud. The local dodgers offered us a drive with a motorboat to this place but asked a solid amount. They knew that people like me often agreed to pay such money. Obviously, I was not the only one who wanted this. They even organized a cartel, and our attempts to find some lower price made them laugh. I didn't pay. I thought I'd seen enough.
The most essential document in this field is the Hong Cong Convention, regulating the safety and environmental protection during ship recycling, signed by 65 countries on May 15th, 2009. Another essential 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, is the European contribution to more human and protective working conditions in this industry. The reason for that document is that many of the ships recycled in Chittagong Ship Breaking Yards belong to European companies.
Influential organizations like The International Labour Organisation (I.L.O.), the nongovernmental organization "Platform on Ship-breaking", the International Ship Recycling Association (I.S.R.A.), the "International Organisation for Standardisation (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 and varied, and many people seem to know about this matter. However, it does not appear they protect or improve local people's lives.
A bit later, we watched a group of men towing a colossal ship chain in the mud in the background of the sunset. That picture reminded me desperately the Repin's painting "Volga boatmen".
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."