The ship-breaking yards north of the city of Chittagong, in Bangladesh, have been described by reporters as a hell on earth. Amidst smoke, fumes and heat, giant ships up to 68,000 tons in size, lie beached on the shoreline. Men and children risk their lives every day, for little over $1 a day, to break apart these ships using their bare hands and low-power tools.
Ship-breaking in Bangladesh is an incredibly dangerous job. Oil tankers and containerships are made to withstand storming seas, and are not meant to be taken apart. Yet, the men of Chittagong risk life and limb daily to deconstruct the retired ships so the parts can be boiled down and sold.
Peter Gwin, a reporter for National Geographic, traveled to the Bay of Bengal to learn more. Ever since recent publicity pitted public opinion against the shipyard owners, the beaches where the ships are docked have been closed to outsiders. “It used to be a tourist attraction,” Gwin learns from a local, “People would come watch men tear apart ships with their bare hands. But they don’t let outsiders in anymore.”
It is no surprise that bad publicity eventually caught up with the industry. CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Daniel Schorn describes what he saw in his own visit to the shipyards, “as close as you’ll get to hell on earth… The men who labor here are the wretched of the earth, doing dirty, dangerous work, for little more than $1 a day.”
The problem with the industry is that it is so lucrative, which is why it shows no signs of slowing. Mohammed Mohsin is one beneficiary of the shipyards. Mohsin buys ships for millions of dollars each, and turns a profit by selling their parts. In Bangladesh, on average, in 3-4 months a ship will turn a one million dollar profit.
“It sounds like a good business,” Muhammed Ali Shahin, an activist working against the shipyards says, “Until you’ve met the widows of young men who were crushed by falling pieces of steel or suffocated inside a ship.”
Bangladesh is home to the highest number of ship-breaking yards in the world. It is closely followed in rank by India, China, Pakistan and Turkey. There is a reason all the countries on that list are in the developing world. Ship-breaking yards in Europe and North America are bound by regulations to limit the danger from both physical injuries and toxic exposure.
“In the West you don’t let people pollute your countries by breaking up ships on your beaches,” Shahin laments, “Why is it okay for poor workers to risk their lives to dispose of your unwanted ships here?”
– Julianne O’Connor