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Business booms in world's biggest ship graveyard

One of the most lucrative - and dangerous - workplaces in Bangladesh

Business booms in world's biggest ship graveyard

Workers at one of the shipbreaking yards in Chittagong, Bangladesh reporter, Chittagong

July 10, 2013

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With dozens of oil tankers, cruise liners and cargo ships docked at Sitakunda, it looks like any other busy port. But these ships will never leave. Hundreds of rusty hulks arrive every year to die at the biggest ship graveyard on Earth, stretched along 22km of what was once a pristine sandy beach in southeastern Bangladesh.

Gangs of workers here carry out one of the world’s most dangerous jobs, dismantling the sea giants with blowtorches, sledgehammers and bare hands, often for less than US$3 a day. Every nut and bolt of the ship, including the cables, the lifeboats, toilets and even the light bulbs, are sold in local markets that sprawl more than a kilometer along the busy highway to the port.  

“Sixty percent of the country’s two million tons of domestic steel comes from shipbreaking,” says Mohammed Mohsin, managing director of PHP Group which owns the second largest shipyard, whose family has generated vast wealth from the shipbreaking industry. “Selling it to a poor nation like Bangladesh has economic prospects, for them and us.”

But the work undertaken by the 30,000 men, and children, who operate the yards is extremely hazardous. A year ago, Mohammad Ali, a former ship cutter, was removing a chunk of metal when it fell on him.

Having suffered broken bones and damage to internal organs, he has been unable to return to work. “I’ve been bedridden for seven months, and suffered from anemia and urinal infections,” said Ali, adding that doctors gave him a belt to wear to reduce the swelling of his internal organs. “If the problem doesn’t go I will need a surgery.”

The Brussels-based NGO Shipbreaking Platform counted 15 deaths in the Bangladesh yards last year. The Chittagong-based watchdog, Young Power in Social Action (YPSA) says the figure is much higher, with one person killed each week on average. The workers can recall gory tales of deaths in the yards.

“Once my leg was broken in an accident, but I recovered and returned to work,” says 22-year-old Nayem Islam. “I’ve seen gas explosions, workers dying and the bodies bursting into pieces.” He adds however that despite the risks, most workers come from poor backgrounds, and have a family to support. Few other opportunities exist for them.

Attempts to demand better conditions for the workers, and adequate compensation for injuries, have met with little success. Labor leader Rahim says that union organizing is virtually impossible. “The shipyard owners get list of labor organizers from authorities, then they kick out the workers who are on list and claim no one wants to do unions. Workers who made committees were either fired or became too scared, so they stopped.

He says he’s received death threats on many occasions, most recently at the beginning of last year. “I was told there was an accident [in one of the yards] so to come and take photos. I asked friends and discovered there had been no accident. I realized it was a trap and did not go. I’m tempted to go to shipyards but I suspect I might get killed so I haven’t gone there in a while.”

There is also the environmental factor, with ships carrying hazardous toxins, including asbestos, lead and arsenic, being beached here. The EU last month introduced new legislation that requires its ships to be recycled only at yards with proper waste facilities. The move is aimed at forcing ship-breaking companies into channeling financial resources into waste disposal, otherwise they could lose their European customers – with one ton of recycled steel able to generate US$25 for the shipyard owners, and yards recycling on average 100,000 tons a year, the potential loss could be heavy.  

Campaigners say however that ships are first sold to brokers, who can ‘re-flag’ the vessel before selling it on to shipbreaking companies, meaning that what were once EU ships can still end up in yards that haven’t implemented improvements. Critics of the EU legislation also say that the new ruling does nothing to pressure for an improvement in actual working conditions in the yards, where child labor is common.

Mohsin says however that, following a visit by the International Labor Organization (ILO) four years ago, he has taken the suggestions on board. “We are following ILO guidelines on how to work and how to carry big metal pieces. Workers don’t carry big metal on their shoulders, but use magnets. We made it compulsory for workers to wear helmets, gloves and shoes while working.”

He has also installed a water treatment plant, asbestos neutralization facilities, and keeps doctors on round-the-clock standby. “These are expensive measures, and not all yards can afford them. But we wanted to be a pioneer on this.”

Despite the perilous nature of the work, campaigners are quick to point out that no one is calling for an end to the industry. Around 200,000 Bangladeshis make their living from it, whether in the yards, or by buying and selling the recycled material.

The industry generates around US$1.3 billion annually. And with the entire fleet of single-hulled oil tankers around the globe scheduled to be scrapped by 2016, these shipbreaking yards are likely to be busy in the coming years.

Countries like Bangladesh may have become garbage dumps for the West, but the rewards for the scavengers are rich. 

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