Shipbreaking in Bangladesh by decree


									Steel Beach
                                                                                AT LOW TIDE, the vast mud flat of the          25-kilometre coastal stretch – it’s big
                                                                                Bay of Bengal is almost apocalyptic.           business but minimal workers’ rights.
                                                                                Unwanted oil tankers, passenger liners
                                                                                                                               The work, needless to say, is extremely
                                                                                and fishing boats dot the world’s largest
                                                                                                                               dangerous. Basic safety equipment such
                                                                                river delta like beached leviathans, the
                                                                                                                               as hard hats, gloves, boots or goggles are

Shipbreaking in Bangladesh
                                                                                monolithic steel forms turning coastal
                                                                                                                               in most cases unheard of and insurance is
                                                                                idyll into industrial wasteland. Around
                                                                                                                               a foreign concept. Since the industry is
                                                                                40,000 workers toil with blowtorches,                                                          OppOsite: Workers at the end of the night shift
                                                                                                                               not officially recognised by the
                                                                                hammers and brute strength on the steel                                                        carry empty drums out to the hulks,
                                                                                                                               Government, there are no policing entities
                                                                                carcasses, recycling everything on the                                                         to fill with waste oil.
                                                                                                                               to enforce codes of practice. Politicians
                                                                                ship as well as the ship itself. This rather                                                   LeFt: Yard owners inspect progress of breaking
                                                                                                                               and government employees hold financial
           Our latest photographic exhibition portrays an industry              surreal industry is in Bangladesh, on a                                                        up a tanker
                                                                                                                               stakes in the shipyards, further isolating
                                                                                stretch of beach about 25 kilometres long
           that’s a danger to both its workers and the environment.             near the town of Sitakunda.
                                                                                                                               workers who are pushing for change.             beLOW: A night watchman keeps warm
                                                                                                                               (Bangladeshis are very engaged in               by a fire of solid oil
           Guest photographer Andrew Bell relates the impressions               Bangladesh is a Sunni Muslim country           politics, which can often result in ‘hartels’   All photographs copyright Andrew bell
           he gathered while working on this striking portfolio.                that was formerly known as East                or strikes.)                          

                                                                                Pakistan. It was created in 1947 with the
                                                                                partition of British India into the separate
                                                                                                                               Breaking a sizeable ship takes about six
                                                                                states of India and Muslim Pakistan, the       months, until all that remains is an oily
                                                                                latter comprising two widely separated,
                                                                                culturally distinct parts, East and West       stain on the beach
                                                                                Pakistan. Bangladesh, the eastern portion,
                                                                                gained independence in 1971 after a            Explosions due to gas build-up and              receive the equivalent of $300 for the
                                                                                bloody war with Pakistan.                      falling steel are among the dangers             death of a worker but this is highly
                                                                                                                               workers face, along with other chemical         variable as the payoffs depend wholly on
                                                                                Bangladesh is the most densely populated
                                                                                                                               perils that have not been dealt with            the sympathies of shipyard owners.
                                                                                country in the world, one of the poorest
                                                                                                                               effectively. Most other countries have          Hiring labourers through contractors, the
                                                                                and, according to the UN, one of the most
                                                                                                                               banned work on ‘raw’, untreated tankers.        owners seem legally untouchable.
                                                                                corrupt. In a land where unemployment is
                                                                                                                               In India, for example, the Gujarat              Someone with a contract to deliver tons
                                                                                40% and safe working conditions are a
                                                                                                                               Pollution Control Board monitors the            of steel from the hulk to a truck will
                                                                                luxury, it’s little surprise that those
                                                                                                                               removal of toxic and hazardous material         employ labourers by the day, distancing
                                                                                working in these grim shipyards consider
                                                                                                                               from foreign vessels before dismantling.        the yard from employer responsibilities
                                                                                themselves lucky to be there. Eighty
                                                                                                                               Bangladesh remains one of few countries         and making legal action futile.
                                                                                percent of the population live on less than
                                                                                                                               without regulation of the industry by
                                                                                two dollars a day in an underdeveloped                                                         While there have been a few critical
                                                                                                                               government departments.
                                                                                economy where the biggest currency note                                                        media reports, one by the BBC in 2002
                                                                                in circulation equates to about 12             Approximately 600 serious accidents             and another by Radio France, this
                                                                                Australian dollars. There are                  occur every year, around 20 resulting in        exposure has been catalyst to minimal
                                                                                approximately 65 separately owned scrap        death. A single explosion in 2004 killed        change. A ‘model yard’ was set up –
                                                                                yards functioning simultaneously on the        six workers. Typically a family may             it was called PHP, standing for peace,

Page 14                                             SIGNALS 82 March–May 2008   SIGNALS 82 March–May 2008                                                                                                              Page 15
                                                                       happiness and prosperity – but the biggest     third of his wage is spent on food and         floods and bad luck. The daily
                                                                       change was the tightening up of security.      bedding, the rest is sent home to support      newspapers are filled with stories of
                                                                       Yard owners simply barred the gates and        his family.                                    terrorist bomb attacks, extremist
                                                                       turned away visitors, particularly those                                                      executions, crime, corruption and a
                                                                       with foreign faces and carrying cameras        Breaking a sizeable ship takes about six       horrific road toll. Using any sort of road
                                                                       or recording devices.                          months, until all that remains is an oily      transport is a nerve-wracking experience.
                                                                                                                      stain on the beach; the entire ship is         Adhering strictly to a right-of-way rule –
                                                                       Up until the early 1970s old or                recycled. As the ship gets lighter, large      the bigger the vehicle, the more rights the
                                                                       uneconomical ships might sometimes be          anchor winches on land haul the hulks          driver commands – adds a certain
                                                                       scuttled at sea, so initially the Bangladesh   with the tide towards the yards.               electrical charge to every journey. Adding
                                                                       scrap merchants got them for free. All
                                                                                                                                                                     to the road toll are those drivers who have
                                                                       they had to do was take them away.             Scrap dealers and sellers are invited to
                                                                                                                                                                     survived an accident but were cornered
                                                                       This has changed with stiff competition in     tender for the components. High-value
                                                                                                                                                                     by angry bystanders. Accident reports
                                                                       the scrap trade from India, Turkey,            items such as lifeboats, electronics,
                                                                                                                                                                     often end by stating either that the driver
                                                                                                                                                                     escaped the scene, or was beaten to death
                                                                       Explosions due to gas build-up and falling                                                    by an angry mob with no faith in the legal
                                                                       steel are among the dangers workers face,                                                     Among this chaos (to which there is a
                                                                       along with other chemical perils                                                              certain rhythm) many outsiders feel that

                                                                       Pakistan and China, so that a large tanker     furniture and kitchen fittings are keenly      the shipbreaking industry has to be
                                                                       now costs millions of dollars. Ship            sought after. Passenger liner furniture is     stopped, but there are many more issues
                                                                       purchases are typically financed by bank       valued for its quality; there is even an       apart from safety and pollution (visit
                                                                       loans commanding 15% interest. A yard          industry making fake ship furniture to
                                                                       owner hopes to make around 10% of the          take advantage of this demand. Heavy           bangladesh.asp). Many families rely on
                                                                       purchase price, and the growing interest       mechanical equipment from the engine           these jobs as their only means of support
                                                                       bill drives the yards to operate seven days    room, as well as pipes, portholes, switches,   and no one is offering an alternative.
                                                                       a week (although many workers take off         railings, and ladders, are all hot numbers.    Perhaps if the government and yard
                                                                       Fridays for prayers).                                                                         owners followed the Indian example,
                                                                                                                      Electronic utilities such as wire, light       a safer work environment with less
                                                                       A larger yard employs around 700               bulbs and any bolts or screws that can be      pollution could turn a fringe activity into
                                                                       workers, 300 of whom work a night shift        undone are also salvaged. Even the oil         a bona fide industry the benefits of which
                                                                       when darkness compounds the risk of            from the bottom of sumps and bilges is         were more widely spread. 
                                                                       dangerous work conditions. Shifts start at     removed and sold as fuel, to fire bricks.
                                                                       8 am and 8 pm, a 12-hour shift earning an      Reduced to bare metal, the hull is cut into    The exhibition Steel Beach –
                                                                       average wage of about US$2. A ‘lifter’         manageable pieces and loaded into trucks.      Shipbreaking in Bangladesh is on
                                                                       will earn less and a supervisor a little       About 80% of Bangladesh’s steel needs          view in the Tasman Light gallery
                                                                       more. A typical example would be a boy                                                        until 30 March 2008.
                                                                                                                      are met from the ships. Most is melted
                                                                       who is around 14 years old, from the
                                                                                                                      down to make steel for the construction
                                                                       north-west of Bangladesh. He cuts steel in
                                                                                                                      industry, but some is also used for truck
tOp: On a rainy morning workers arrive
                                                                       the shipyards 12 hours a day, seven days                                                      AbOve LeFt: Night shift workers cut the steel
                                                                                                                      bodies.                                        sections of a ship.
for a 12-hour shift.                                                   a week. For those from this poor rural
                                                                       area, the pay is far superior to existing      Bangladesh is a country that has had           AbOve Right: Recycled toilets and sinks are
AbOve: After a night shift on the ships.
                                                                       agricultural labour opportunities. About a     much more than its share of famine,            sold to builders and renovators.

Page 16                                    SIGNALS 82 March–May 2008   SIGNALS 82 March–May 2008                                                                                                            Page 17

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