Adult and underage workers risk their lives in Bangladesh’s rising ship-breaking industry
In late November, a 52,000-ton barge eased into this ramshackle port on the Bay of Bengal and came to rest on a wide, muddy beach.
After nearly four decades crisscrossing the oceans for an American offshore engineering company, the DB-101 did not come to erect another oil rig or lay miles of undersea pipe.
It came here to die.
For scores of large commercial vessels that reach the end of their seagoing lives each year, the final port of call is Chittagong in southern Bangladesh, home to the world’s largest — and least regulated — ship-breaking industry.
Dead tankers, cruise liners, cargo ships and fishing trawlers from around the world molder in the hazy sunshine along a 10-mile stretch of beach. Thousands of laborers, many wearing plastic sandals and street clothes, use blowtorches to cut through the steel and then crank rust-ridden winches to haul the pieces up to dry land to be sold as scrap.
The world disposed of 768 ships last year. In terms of tonnage, a third of that demolition took place in Bangladesh, which surpassed India because of a decline in Indian demand for scrap steel. The two countries and Pakistan account for about 70% of all ship breaking.
Bangladesh’s increased market share has raised alarm among environmental and labor activists, as well as United Nations officials, who say the country has not kept pace with industry reforms elsewhere. Despite new laws aimed at making the business cleaner and safer, ships are taken apart here much as they were in the 1980s.
The gently sloping shoreline north of Chittagong allows a practice known as beaching, in which ships are piloted directly onto the sand during high tide. With no safe system to dispose of oil and toxic sludge, their waste continues to pollute the coast.
Training and safety equipment are scant, and dozens of workers are still killed or seriously injured each year in falls, explosions and other accidents. Workers are supposed to be at least 18, but even that basic law is often broken.
“It’s a very hard job,” said Mohammed Shujan Islam, 17, a migrant worker from northern Bangladesh earning $3 a day to help dismantle the DB-101. “But I do it to help feed my family.”
Beaching, in particular, is highly unsafe, because so much of the work has to be done by hand, said Patrizia Heidegger, executive director of Shipbreaking Platform, a Brussels-based advocacy group.
“You’re talking about breaking down the largest movable man-made structures on a bed of mud,” she said. “You can’t use any heavy machinery, you can’t use cranes. Workers can’t even wear boots because they would disappear in the mud.”
At least 16 Bangladeshi workers died and 22 were seriously injured in ship-breaking accidents last year, according to the group. Half the deaths occurred in explosions caused by the gas cylinders attached to blowtorches.
In addition, workers face the long-term health effects of exposure to hazardous substances released when the ships are broken down. Researchers in Taiwan who tracked ship-breaking workers there for more than two decades found elevated rates of liver, lung and other cancers.
The prime suspect, asbestos, litters the beaches in golf-ball-size clumps in Chittagong.
Under fire from international labor and environmental groups, Bangladesh has instituted laws requiring shipyard owners to provide training and safety equipment and ensure the ships are rid of toxic material before arrival. Court orders have twice shut down the yards for noncompliance, only to see them reopen under industry pressure.
Mohammed Zia-ur-Rahman, 25, who came to the yards as a teenager to support his parents and four sisters, blames exposure to ship waste for a steady cough and bumps on his forearms. The blowtorch operator said workers dread stepping into the engine room, where gas often remains trapped inside pipe joints.
“It’s the most dangerous place,” he said. “Nobody tells us what’s inside, but you can feel the toxic smell.”
Every inch of the retired ships feeds Bangladesh’s developing economy. Their carcasses become scrap metal, often recycled into girders and metal sheets for construction. Loose goods, including bed frames and life jackets, are sold in the markets.
The Mabiya ship-breaking yard where the DB-101 was being dismantled is one of the largest in Chittagong and part of a conglomerate that includes mills that roll scrap metal into steel rebar.
Signs on the whitewashed walls of the low-slung compound say “No Child Labor,” and the company website says it is working to meet United Nations standards for responsible ship recycling.
But inside, Monir Sarkar, 16, said there are many workers his age or younger. Most are hired by recruiters, enabling yard owners to remain intentionally ignorant about their legal status.
Asked whether his yard employed children, Mabiya’s assistant general manager, Pranoy Das, said, “No, never. Of course, we check these things.”
Monir, a slender boy with wide eyes, said no one has asked his age. As the only child of jobless parents, he was prepared to lie when a recruiter came to his poor town in Bogra, in northern Bangladesh, three months ago.
Instead the recruiter simply handed his parents a small advance on his $90 monthly salary, and he was off to Chittagong, where he works 12 to 14 hours a day, returning well after dark to a small red-brick-and-concrete room he shares with three other laborers.
He recalled his first day at the yard in January, when a worker hardly older than him demonstrated how to use a butane cigarette lighter to ignite the blowtorch, then handed him the lighter. He received no other training, he said.
Monir wears safety goggles, gloves and a helmet when working on the DB-101, but still wrestles with fear. “I’m scared every day,” he said. “I feel the heat from the blowtorch on my face and body. It’s very strong. Anything can happen.”
McDermott International Inc., a Houston offshore engineering company that owned the DB-101 until last year, declined to discuss the working conditions or environmental concerns.
“Other than to say we do not condone unsafe, unethical or noncompliant business practices by any person or entity, we are not in a position to comment further on the decisions or operations of unrelated third parties,” McDermott spokesman Richard Goins said.
Commercial ships typically operate for 30 years. Once retired, many are sold to cash buyers in Asia and the Middle East, who in turn sell to ship-breaking yards that finance the purchases with high-interest loans. That creates pressure to scrap the vessels quickly, which activists say contributes to accidents.
Some Western shipowners have pledged to ensure their vessels are dismantled in countries with better safety standards. Of the 27 ships that U.S. owners sold for recycling last year, according to Shipbreaking Platform, 21 ended up in Turkey or India, which industry experts say have improved conditions at demolition yards.
“A couple of years ago it was very rare for a shipowner to ask questions about the way his ship would be recycled, but that is not rare anymore,” said Nikos Mikelis, former head of pollution prevention at the International Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency.
“I expect in a couple of years to have a viable two-tier market in South Asia: normal recycling and responsible recycling,” he said.
In January 2015, Bangladesh began working with the U.N. agency on a detailed project to clean up the ship-breaking industry. The Bangladesh Ship Breakers Assn., an industry group with about 100 member yards, says it supports reforms and has taken steps to improve worker safety, including opening a 250-bed hospital for workers in November.
Mohammad Aslam Chowdhury, the association president, pointed to a slight decline in reported deaths over the last few years. “Accidents are there in any industry in Bangladesh,” he said. “Considering the volume of work in ship breaking, the accidents are few.”
But the industry is also vulnerable to global shocks. As the demand for scrap metal in China and elsewhere plunges, activists worry that Bangladeshi yards will struggle financially, leaving them less money to implement costly reforms.
Having spent nearly a decade at the yards, Zia-ur-Rahman said he did not expect swift changes.
“My hope is to leave this work and do some safe job, any kind of job,” he said. “I don’t want to keep doing this.”
For more news on global sustainability, go to our Global Development Watch page: latimes.com/global-development
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.