Chittagong Ship Breaking Yards are the world second largest. They are situated twenty kilometers along the coast northwest from of Chittagong, mostly between the towns Bhatiara and Sitakunda.
Imagine a magnificent long beach, where instead of tourists and parasols there are huge old ships, scattered chaotically along the seashore. During the low tide, these ships or rather their wrecks remain in the mud, all of them listing to one side, half disintegrated and similar to surrealistic sculptures. An element of drama is added to the landscape by the army of Bengali workers, who, equipped with hammers and torch-lamps, use their raw physical power to strip into pieces, the gigantic metallic hulks of these ships. From afar, these people look like ants tramping around in the mud and clambering over the enormous scrap skeletons.
The growth of the ship breaking industry has mushroomed in recent years. According to data from the World Bank, it employed almost 200,000 workers in 2008. Half of the world’s ships are sent to the Chittagong Ship Breaking Yards, where, because of the working conditions, there is a lot of world interest focused.
The larger ship-breaking companies disassemble two to three ships at a time. Fit takes, for instance, four to six months to disassemble tankers of 7,000 to 8,000 DWT (Deadweight tonnage) and about eight to nine months for larger cargo ships. In 2010, there were as many as 79 companies registered as ship-breakers along the beach at Sitakunda; 61 of which were working actively and employed approximately 30,000 workers. There are around 30 ships anchored chaotically between the towns of Bhatiara and Sitakunda at any one time.
In 2009 the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), a public-advocacy group, managed to convince the Supreme Court in Dhaka to prohibit the activity of the recycling companies who do not observe the specified ecological and labour standard laws. Subsequently, the rate of growth in this industry had decreased by the end of 2010, meanwhile, the companies started to erect high, barbed fences with modern security cameras to deter prying eyes.
Yes, the owners of these companies have a lot to worry about, one of the main reasons is that 12-14 year old children are employed to work in the same heavy and dangerous conditions as their older colleagues and are paid about one US dollar per day. Child labour is one of the most shocking problems associated with this place. People from Delphine Reuter of the Shipbreaking Platform, an NGO in Brussels, have described the ship recycling process in Chittagong as ‘close to slavery’.
It is a cruel irony, that local and international film crews use this place as a ‘film set’ for their mega movie productions. Even more so when you realize that within the ‘film set’ there are very real children living and working. It is a sick world that allows such a place to be used, as a background for films earning millions of dollars, yet at the same time is a living hell for others.
The working-life of a ship can last several decades, but eventually they will inevitably end up as scrap. This is the moment when these veterans of the sea are sent to the breaker’s yard, to these amazing but sad looking beaches, where armies of workers rush to them, hungry to salvage the steel, ship equipment and anything else which can be sold. The steel is salvaged mainly for recycling, whilst other equipment is sold as souvenirs or for other purposes from the hundreds of shops along the road. The ships are also full of toxic waste products, toxic for both people and the environment: items such as asbestos, PCBs, lead, cadmium, organotins, arsenic, zinc and chromium, black oil and burned oil – all of which are classified by the Basel Convention as dangerous. According to the Bangladesh authorities, around 500 workers have died due to occupational injuries, and another 6,000 have been injured since the beginning of the boom in this industry back in 1990’s.
The significant amount of pollution and its resulting danger to the health of workers is for me the second most important problem in this place.
I’ve wrestled with my conscience whether or not to share with you the location of these graveyards and how best to access the ships for the best viewpoints. I finally concluded that I should do so, because I’m sure that it’s better for people to go and see for themselves, to take pictures and therefore inform the world how their discarded waste is effecting the lives of young children.
About an hour from Chittagong, at the end of the beach where the ships are dissembled, there is the small town of Kumira, where you will find a long bridge jutting out into the sea. This a popular place used by local people primarily for walks or as a place for entertainment and rest. From this bridge, there is a good view across to the ships lying on the beach. You may walk freely here and shoot right from the bridge. I would recommend the use of long focal length lens, but even with my Canon EF 17-35mm f/2.8 USM L, I found it adequate for taking good pictures. It is very difficult to get inside the ships and talk with the workers – practically impossible.
If you fly from Dhaka to Chittagong, you will notice just before coming in to land, ships lying like beached whales along the foreshore, these are the ship-breaking yards. You may even manage to get some good photos from the air.
At this point in my photo essay I would like to give a few pointers on how to photograph these often dangerous and difficult to reach areas.
Generally speaking, to access the area you have to be persistent, creative and constant in your efforts. For security, you have to use all the permitted and occasionally non-permitted means at your disposal, which may include a liberal dose of guile and acting skills if necessary. It took me 3 days of tramping in the mud, along the fences in search of a gap to climb through to access the beach and get close up to the ships and workers.
Having a good guide is also of critical importance.
It is best to keep your camera out of sight in your bag, but have it set on automatic mode, ready to quickly take it out, shoot the scene and put away again. This is also critical if you have to run quickly.
A less conspicuous, high quality compact camera would be very helpful in these situations; it would attract less attention.
One of the things I saw as I was leaving this area was a notice written on the main door of one of the companies, it read - “No Child Labor. Safety First.” It was written in English, but even if it had been written in Bengali, none of the children and few of the adults would have had the necessary reading skills, let alone the time to read it.