The wages of fear: The harrowing plight of the ship breakers of Bangladesh – one of the most dangerous jobs in the world
- Arduous and dangerous job employs 200,000 Bangladeshis and is notorious for injuries to and deaths of workers
- There are around 80 yards along an eight-mile stretch of the coast of Bangladesh
The sad beauty of these incredible images cast a light on the shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh, where workers face death and injury from accidents and environmental hazards for just a few dollars a a day.
Chittagong Ship Breaking Yard is the largest of its type in the world. Around 80 active ship breaking yards line an eight-mile stretch of the coast, employing more than 200,000 Bangladeshis and accounting for half of all the steel in Bangladesh.
Ship breaking involves the dismantling of ships for scrap recycling. Most ships have a lifespan of a 25-30 years before there is so much wear that repair becomes uneconomical, but the rising cost to insure and maintain aging vessels can make even younger vessels unprofitable to operate.
A satellite image shows a mile-long stretch of the Bangladeshi coast just north of Chittagong, where ships from around the world are beached and dismantled
Arduous: At low tide ship-breakers haul a 10,000-pound cable to a beached ship to winch pieces ashore as they dismantle it
Swarms of laborers from the poorest parts of Bangladesh use acetylene torches and their hands to slice the carcass into pieces. These are hauled off the beach by teams of loaders, then melted down.
Ship breaking allows materials from the ship, especially steel, to be recycled. Equipment, fuel and chemicals on board the vessel can also be reused.
Peter Gwin, writing for National Geographic, visited the region to see it first hand. He described the guards, razor wire-topped fences and signs prohibiting photography there, installed following scrutiny in the ship breaker’s operations after a spate of deaths.
After workers spent several days cutting through the decks of the Leona I, a large section suddenly crashes, sending shards of steel flying toward the yard managers. Built in Split, Croatia, the cargo vessel was at sea for 30 years, about the average ship’s life span
He said: ‘In the sprawling shantytowns that have grown up around the yards, I met dozens of the workers. Many had deep, jagged scars. “Chittagong tattoos,” one man called them.
‘Some men were missing fingers. A few were blind in one eye.
‘In one home I meet a family whose four sons worked in the yards. The oldest, Mahabub, 40, spent two weeks as a cutter’s helper before witnessing a man burn to death when his torch sparked a pocket of gas belowdecks.
‘”I didn’t even collect my pay for fear they wouldn’t let me leave,” he says, explaining that bosses often intimidate workers to keep silent about accidents.’
Fishermen place their nets at low tide in front of the ship-breaking yards in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Today Chittagong is partially soaked with oil and toxic mud. File picture
Ship breaking is dangerous work and can expose workers to toxic chemicals. File picture
The work is back-breaking because these massive ships are not designed to come apart, but withstand some of the harshest conditions imaginable at sea.
They are often constructed with toxic materials, such as asbestos and lead.
When ships are scrapped in the developed world, the process is more strictly regulated and expensive, so the bulk of the world’s shipbreaking is done in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, where labour is cheap and oversight is minimal.
The article about the ship breakers of Chittagong appears in the May issue of National Geographic. Right, a worker in a ship-breaking yard in Chittagong. File picture