It is hard to imagine that Bangladesh — a bite-size country in the South Asian subcontinent — can have a monopoly on an industry. But it does. On top of being a top exporter of textiles and apparel, Bangladesh is home to a bustling and polemic ship-breaking industry.
According to the Economist, in 2008 Bangladesh accounted for half of the world’s ship-breaking activities. The industry began in the 1960s, after a Greek ship, the MD Alpine, washed up on the shores of the southeastern city of Chittagong. Locals in the area scrambled to dismantle it after realizing that they could make a profit by selling its parts.
Today, ship breaking in Bangladesh is a multi-billion dollar industry that creates jobs and meets a growing demand from European countries for ship-breaking services. Every year, an average of 250 ships of all shapes an sizes — from gas tankers, cruise liners to cargo ships — meet their demise at the hands of barefooted, mud-faced, scrawny, yet sturdy, young men on the beaches of Chittagong.
Non-government organizations have repeatedly critiqued the ship-breaking industry for being hazardous to its laborers. Most workers pry off chunks of metal from with the help of nothing more than scrapyard blowtorches and calloused hands. The risk of injury is high, as is sickness from inhaling toxic fumes and overexposure to asbestos — a silicate mineral substance used in shipbuilding that is a known cause of cancer.
Furthermore, most workers are uneducated and unaware of their rights to file complaints if and when they suffer accidents or sickness. Without legal representation, they become expendable cogs, laboring for employers greedy for sizeable profit margins.
The industry has also been accused of resorting to child labor. In impoverished countries, children are always the most vulnerable demographic because they do not have to be paid a salary, and their voice is thought less of.
Ship breaking poses problems not just for humans, but also for the environment. Firstly, the industry has transformed what once were pristine beaches in Chittagong into metallic graveyards dotted over with pools of grime and sludge. Secondly, some of the debris from dismantled ships gets dragged back into the ocean, where it threatens marine life.
In 2009, an advocacy group, the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), managed to persuade the Supreme Court to ban ship-breaking businesses that failed to meet certain environmental standards. The court’s ruling temporarily put a halt to the industry, leaving thousands of workers without jobs.
President Sheikh Hasina relaxed regulations in 2011 after realizing that ship breaking was a profitable industry for Bangladesh. Despite its drawbacks, a World Bank study showed that ship breaking in Bangladesh sustains 200,000 jobs. Anyone who has ever played Sim City knows that taking jobs away leads to riots. In a densely populated country like Bangladesh (over 150 million squished into 130,000 square kilometers), keeping citizens employed is a must.
Hefzatur Rahman, the president of the Bangladesh Ship Breaks Association, was thankful for the loosening of regulations, which he believes stunts an industry that helps Bangladesh in numerous ways. Ship building not only creates jobs but also supplies over half the country’s steel. According to consulting company IHS, Bangladesh now holds one-fifth of the ship-breaking industry — a far cry from its former place at the top spot, but it is a re-start.
Earlier this year, the European Union, no longer wanting to affiliate itself with the hazards of ship breaking, proposed legislation stipulating that European ships can only be sold and delivered to yards in Bangladesh and India that meet environmental guidelines. These regulations also mandated that all ships coming from Europe be emptied of any toxic chemicals.
Key figures in Bangladesh’s ship-breaking industry claim that there is no reason to tighten regulations all over again. The secretary of the Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association, Nazmul Islam says that the industry is safer now with features like hospital beds for the injured, modern equipment and proper storage units for toxic elements like asbestos. The EU is not convinced and is still pushing for proposals that, if not met, will cast the ship-breaking industry into another period of austerity.
From an outsider’s perspective, investing in improved equipment and better working conditions is a small price to pay to keep an industry running that creates jobs and models the sentiment behind recycling — that is, that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.