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Spring 2011

It is the end of another long, hard day of backbreaking and hazardous toil. As the sun sets off Bangladesh’s scarred coastline, hundreds of men clamber off the hulk of a ship and paddle wearily back to the oil-streaked mud of the beach. They are “cutters”, and they have spent the day tearing the ship apart with little more than their bare hands and oxyacetylene torches. 

For Bangladesh, this is big business. Some 700 ocean-going vessels are scrapped each year, and about 100 of them are ripped apart in Bangladesh. The ship-breaking market is like a parable of the promises and pitfalls of globalisation. In rich Western countries, ship-owners used to have to pay royally to have their craft taken apart by expensive machinery in dry docks. Now, they can sell the decommissioned ships to ship-breakers, who have them dismembered along poverty-stricken beaches, with anything from 300 to 500 workers employed on each ship. 

In one sense, this is what globalisation promised: ageing ships, once big costs for their owners, have become assets; and poor countries, with few resources beyond their labour, can make use of them, creating jobs and providing themselves with cheap recycled materials, notably steel.

But there are snags. Ship-breaking is dangerous for its workers and damaging to the environment. The countries that dominate the market—Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan and Vietnam—typically offer cheap, unorganised labour and lax environmental controls. The industry first came to Bangladesh thanks to one of its regular scourges. In 1960, when Bangladesh was still known as East Pakistan, a cyclone
left a ship, the SS Clan Alpine, beached near the port of Chittagong. Since then, ship-breaking has become Bangladesh’s main source of steel. And a stretch of beach, as these pictures show, has become a vision of hell.

They were taken by Saiful Huq Omi, a photographer whose home is about 40 minutes’ drive from the beach. “I was born in this place,” he says. “I grew up in this place.” He was keen to get to the heart of the matter: “in other photographers’ pictures, you cannot see the brutality of the business, how it is killing people. It is still not considered an industry, the workers have no rights.” 

It relies on ill-paid casual workers risking injury, mutilation and death. Numbers are hard to gauge, since few have an interest in publicising them. But the Bangladeshi press has estimated that more than 400 workers have died in the past 20 years, and more than 4,000 have suffered serious injuries. 

Sometimes gases lingering around the vessels explode, to lethal effect. Some workers have been crushed by tumbling steel girders; others have fallen from the high sides of ships on which they were working without safety harnesses. Many of the oxyacetylene cutters work without goggles. Few wear shoes, let alone protective clothing.

They are also exposed to long-term health risks: from the asbestos used for insulation in older ships, and from paint containing lead, cadmium and arsenic. Workers are poorly compensated when injured, and often, in between ships, have no work and no income. Many live in squalor. According to Young Power in Social Action, an NGO campaigning on ship-breaking in Chittagong, 51% of workers are under 22 years old and 46% are illiterate. Omi says they hate the work. They do it, he says, because “there is no other way to support their families. This is their last option.” ~ SIMON LONG

A MARKET FOR ALMOST EVERYTHING
There is a market for almost everything that can be retrieved from the ship—the propellers are especially valuable. But even the woodwork can be stripped out, dragged ashore and sold for reuse

NOT MANY PEOPLE LAST AS LONG
Rafiq Mia is a veteran. Not many people last as long as his 18 years as a “cutter” in the ship-breaking industry. He knows the risks he is taking. But he says the job saves his family from starvation

RE-ROLLING MILL
A “re-rolling mill”, near Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka—where much of the steel stripped from ships near Chittagong ends up. It is smelted again and turned into steel rods

ONE OF THE HUNDRED
One of the 100 workers in the re-rolling mill uses an axe to separate molten steel

NO GOGGLES
Many cutters work long hours and have nothing to protect their eyes. Their employers do not provide goggles

COMMUTING HOME
Commuting home from work by wooden dug-out, the cutters clutch the tiffin cans that have sustained them through the day

LIMBS LOST
Abul Kasheem lost most of his right arm and right leg when a huge metal sheet fell on it while he was working. He was just 14.  Although, in theory, entitled to compensation, he received nothing. His older brother is now working to support a family of six

HEALTH HAZARDS
One of the many health hazards the cutters face is to their lungs, from the gases released as they take the ships apart

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