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Cover Story

Beaching Point

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

The ship breakers of Bangladesh strip old ships in one of the world's most dangerous jobs.

Out at sea, in the still blackness before dawn, the Japanese freighter Seifu Maru lies at anchor, visible only by its masthead lights. On shore, about a hundred men wait, staring out to sea with eager anticipation -- the tide is coming in. The high tide gradually raises the sea level, bringing the waterline half a mile inland and nearly to the top of the beach where the workers are gathered. A man barks a few words into a walkie-talkie. A murmur goes up as the masthead lights begin to creep towards the beach. The Seifu Maru is on its last voyage.

Beaching Point

As the undertakers cheer, the Seifu Maru comes plunging out of the semi-darkness, thrashing the water with its propeller, raising a large white bow wave as it rushes toward the beach. The ship is running almost without lights -- a ghost ship with a skeleton crew. As it looms over the beach, the men standing in its path scatter to safety. It is possible to make out the dim figures of sailors peering out from the bridge of the ship.

The Seifu Maru keeps coming, intent on a course of self-destruction. Then with a dull roar, the keel hits the bottom, and the ship drives hard onto the flooded beach, carried by its weight, moving forward under full power until the rudder no longer functions and the hull veers out of control. Mammoth chains and anchors rattle down the sides and splash into the shallows. The engine stops, the lights switch off and abruptly the ship lies dark and still. The Seifu Maru is officially dead.

The first light of dawn reveals a ragged shoreline strewn with metal parts, abandoned lifeboats, steel hulls and debris. It is Davy Jones' Locker. The 10-mile stretch of beach near Sitakunda, Chittagong, is home to at least a hundred ship breaking yards -- where the world's ships go to die. Ships lie on the beach in various stages of demolition. Tankers, freighters, fishing trawlers and even large cruise ships -- smashed, cut, rusting, smoking -- are packed close together. Working for barely a hundred Taka a day with little but their bare hands, the ship breakers of Bangladesh strip old ships in one of the world's most dangerous jobs.

As the sun rises and the tide begins to go out, the lean bronzed workers of the breaking yard swarm over the Seifu Maru. They scour the ship for barrels of fuel and carry those to shore. Any electronics such as air conditioners and TVs are also carried ashore. Then starts the work of dissecting the ship, bolt by bolt, rivet by rivet. Every piece of metal cut loose from the ship is destined for the furnaces to be melted down and fashioned into steel rods.

The global economic crisis boosted the ship breaking industry as shipping companies tried to sell older ships for scrap. Photo: Zobaer Hossain Sikder

Walking lock step, a team of workers carries cable out to the ship. The thick steel cables are attached to winches on shore. The winches will drag the large bits of metal ashore to be further dissected. The cables are twisted and coated with mud. Sharp bits of metal poke out. The teams stagger against the stiffness and weight as they struggle down the beach and onto the mud bearing the weight of the cable.

The Seifu Maru will not die easily. It is built to float, to withstand storms and the ravages of seawater. Gradually, with blowtorches and winches, the ship breakers will cut up the entire ship over the course of weeks and even months.

Ship breaking arrived in Bangladesh by pure chance. In 1965, a cyclone left a large cargo ship beached on what was then a pristine shoreline. It didn't take long before local people began ripping the ship apart. Opportunistic businessmen took note - perhaps they didn't need a storm to bring ships on to the beach.

“We saw a business opportunity and decided to buy ships for scrapping,” says Kamal Uddin Ahmed, Vice President of the Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association. “I started my yard, Arefin Enterprise in 1984. Now there are a lot of yards along the coast.”

Sitakunda's ship-breaking yards demolished one million tonnes of steel last year, according to the BSBA. Once removed from the old ships, steel plates are melted down by Bangladesh's 200 small re-rolling mills and turned into steel rods. Almost half of Bangladesh's steel rods come from the shipyards of Chittagong.

Kamal Uddin Ahmed claims that the industry provides employment for 2,00,000 people directly and indirectly -- a figure hotly disputed by environmentalists who have been battling the ship breakers for decades.

“The ship breakers mention these large figures, but they don't even have a register of their workers,” complains Syeda Rizwana Hasan of the Bangladesh Environmental lawyers Association (Bela). “Even if a worker dies, it is difficult to trace who he is or where he came from. I would say the figure would be closer to 20,000.”

Chain Gang: Workers drag a winch cable to the scrapped ship.

No one denies that the human cost of scrapping ships is high. Around 25 workers lost their lives in accidents last year, and several dozen were injured. The men, who often hail from the Monga-stricken northern districts, arrive at the yards with often no more than what they are wearing. They receive little or no training, and are given very little by way of safety measures. Accidents are common.

Mohsin, 23, came to Sitakunda after running away from home in Jhenidaha. He started work at a ship breaking yard in Madam Bibir Haat. On arrival, he was assigned to a carrying team -- the workers who carry the traction cable to the ship, and bring back the steel plates that the cutting teams cut with blowtorches. The carrying teams are at the bottom of the hierarchy on the beach, the least skilled and the lowest paid. They wear ragged lungis, their shirts hanging loose on their thin strong bodies. Mohsin knew that scrapping ships was dangerous, knew about the smoke and the fumes and the accidents. But he had nothing better to do, and the wages of Tk. 120 a day seemed good on an empty stomach.

During his second week on the job, Mohsin went aboard a Russian tanker that was being cut up.

Steel plates from the scrapped ships are melted down to produce rods and bars. Photos: Syed Zain Al-Mahmood

Climbing into the dark hold of the ship, he was waiting for a piece of steel to be lowered when a loose metal plate fell on him. He was pulled from the ship by coworkers and rushed to hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead.

“He was thinking of leaving this job and learning to drive a car,” says his coworker Rashid, who hails from the same district. “He didn't make it.”

Strangely, Rashid and other workers are philosophical about the dangers of their profession. “It's dangerous. But what can we do? We have to go when our time comes.”

Rizwana Hasan lays the blame squarely at the door of the yard owners. “The whole operation is criminally negligent. Not only are the owners careless about their workers, the men are often sent into areas of the ship that are extremely hazardous. During a recent accident, the Explosives Bureau certified a ship as safe, but warned against cutting up six special chambers. But while the ship was being scrapped, men with blowtorches were sent into those chambers. Four people died.”

Kamal Uddin Ahmed denies any negligence. “These are all accidents,” he claims. “In my yard I have rules that say all workers must wear hard hats, and use safety harnesses. Look, we don't even have to buy this stuff -- we can get them from the ships we scrap. But the workers don't like wearing such things. We are trying to educate them.”

Ahmed points out that a lot more people die every day from road traffic accidents but little is being done to improve safety in the transportation sector. “Why is there so much controversy about the ship breaking industry -- a thriving sector in which Bangladesh holds an edge?”

According to Ahmed, the image of Bangladeshi ship breakers buying up dirt-cheap ships that nobody wants is untrue. “We have to buy them in open tender in competition with breakers from China and India,” he says. “Last year, we bought 187 ships while India and China bought 372 and 241 respectively. So this garbage dump theory is pure propaganda.”

The ship breaking industry employs thousands of people, but worker safety is an issue. Photo: Zobaer Hossain Sikder

Environmentalists like Rizwana Hasan say the West has no business dumping its old and decommissioned ships on Bangladesh. They point out that scrapping ships on shore results in toxic contamination of the coastal waters and serious health hazards for the 20,000 or so workers. The ships, laden with asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead, arsenic and other substances, leak toxic chemicals into the environment. They argue that ecosystems have been heavily polluted and hundreds of workers have been maimed or killed in the process, as they dismantle the ships with little or no protective equipment.

“We have warned all the ship breaking yards that they cannot operate without environmental clearance,” says Abdus Sobhan, Director of the Department of Environment. “Until now, not a single yard has obtained clearance.”

Kamal Uddin Ahmed has a different take on the situation. “No less than 50 of our members have applications pending," he says. "There are four or five who applied three years ago. The DoE has not made a decision on a single application to date.”

The Vice President of the BSBA says their attempt at improving working conditions is snarled in red tape and corruption. “We are building a 150-bed hospital at Bhatiary for our workers. It took us several years to get clearance to build it.”

His version of events is disputed by environmental campaigners. “None of these so-called yards have proper infrastructure,” says Rizwana Hasan. “How do they expect to get clearance?”

Workers are often exposed to deadly toxins, exploding gases, falling steel plates and other dangers. Photo: Syed Zain Al-Mahmood

Things were brought to a head recently when after more than five years of dogged litigation by Bela, the High Court ordered:
-Uncertified ship-breaking operations must close within two weeks;
-Ship-breaking operations must obtain environmental certification before operating in Bangladesh;
-Ships must be cleaned of all hazardous materials before entering the country; and
-Ship-breaking operations must guarantee safe working conditions for workers and environmentally sound disposal plans for wastes.

Although parts of the ruling were stayed by the chamber judge of the Supreme Court, ship breakers like Kamal Uddin are worried. They say implementation of such a verdict would ruin the industry and put thousands of people out of work.

“It would be too expensive. If the ship has to be pre-cleaned, why would the owners send it to Bangladesh? They can do it better in the US or Europe! We can do it cheaply, that's why we have the edge.”

The global economic crisis boosted the ship breaking industry as shipping companies tried to sell older ships for scrap several years before they reach the normal end of their lifecycle. Analysts say a controversial global treaty to clean up the ship recycling industry has also meant a boom in business for the Bangladeshi breakers. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) agreement on ship breaking was signed in May by 65 countries, and business leaders say the deal finally legitimises their work and should herald major growth for the sector. But trade unionists and environmentalists have criticised the treaty for failing to address the serious dangers faced by workers and the pollution that the industry causes.

The new rules also say about 1,000 single-hull oil tankers currently at sea must be mothballed by 2010 -- a deadline that means more business for Bangladesh. In another development, the US government recently lifted a moratorium on export of ships for scrapping. Taking advantage of this opportunity, a slew of entrepreneurs are setting up yards along the Sitakunda coast.

Experienced hands like Kamal Uddin Ahmed blame the new yards for the rising toll of accidents. "You need a lot of technical know-how to scrap a ship," asserts Ahmed. "You can't just buy a ship and start a breaking yard."

Locals say at least 40 new yards have sprung up along the Sonaichari Kumira coast over the past year, allegedly owned and supported by ruling party men. In many cases, protected forests have been chopped down to make way for the scrapping yards. According to reports published in the daily Prothom Alo, the Department of Forests has lodged 14 cases against the local MP and his son. In an indication that the blaze of negative publicity has the government worried, the Prime Minister herself recently announced that a set of rules would soon be devised to regulate the ship breaking industry.

Accidents are common in the breaking yards. Photo: Syed Zain Al-Mahmood

The men who toil in the ship breaking yards of Chittagong are dwarfed by the ships they destroy. While the legal and ethical debate rages around them, the workers continue to carry metal plates, each weighing more than a ton from the shoreline to waiting trucks, walking in step like pallbearers, or like members of a chain gang. They draw images of where they would like to be on the sand -- pictures of paradise far from this wasteland.


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