Naeem — Ship-Breakers of Bangladesh

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This article is connected with an event at the Asia Society – rg
Please come out for the opening of the SHIPBREAKERS OF BANGLADESH show
@ Asia Society on June 6th. 80% of the world’s ships are now
dismantled in two countries: Bangladesh & India. In this exhibit, we
look at how this dangerous and toxic work migrated from the developed
world to South Asia.
Below is more detail about the show, as well as an excerpt from an
essay which will be in a catalogue given out to show visitors.
1. Ship-Breakers of Bangladesh: The Myth of Global Labor Equality
Opening June 6 @ Asia Society
2. Dirty Ships, Dangerous Work and Global Labor
3. Preview of Robert Bailey’s Photos
Shipbreakers of Bangladesh:
Dirty Ships, Dangerous Work and Global Labor
by Naeem Mohaiemen
“It is brutal and primeval. One of many injustices in Bangladesh,
dressed up as a success story by a deceitful elite.” – Farid Bakht,
In 1992, The Economist revealed a memo written by the World Bank’s
former chief economist Lawrence Summers. The memo discussed the
economic rationale for “encouraging more migration of dirty
industries” to Less Developed Countries (LDC):
“The measurements of the costs of health-impairing pollution depends
on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From
this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should
be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country
with the lowest wages.”
The memo provoked outrage from the press, environmental groups, and
LDCs. Brazil’s Secretary of the Environment, Jose Lutzenburger,
called it “a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation,
reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and arrogant ignorance of
many conventional ‘economists’.” Summers quickly disavowed the memo,
explaining that the remarks were meant to be an ironic aside to
illustrate that free trade would not necessarily lead to environmental
improvements for LDCs.
Whatever the provenance and intention of the memo, some of Summers’
prescriptions have indeed been implemented — not by the Bank, but
rather through the logic of global markets. A prime example is the
shipbreaking industry, which has migrated from Northern to Southern
nations over the last three decades. Until the 1970s, the majority of
ship cutting was done in the US and Europe, using heavy machinery on
salvage decks. But increasing environmental regulations and labor
costs resulted in the transfer of this work to countries like Korea
and Taiwan. By the 1980s, as these fast-developing Asian “tigers”
also started turning away from this work, the industry migrated again
— this time to India and Bangladesh.
Rusting Hulks Out At Sea
The statistics of the shipping industry are staggering in their
long-term implications. There are approximately 45,000 ships in the
world’s seawaters. These include cargo ships, tankers, cruise ships,
and military vessels. Every four years, these carriers are required
to get a sea-worthiness certificate. After 25-30 years, the cost of
reinvestment to acquire this certificate is no longer profitable. As
a result, about 700 ships (15-25 million deadweight tonnes) are sold
every year to one of the Asian scrap yards. The exceptions are
military ships, which are not sold through the international brokerage
system. Over the next few decades, the number of ships that will need
to be decommissioned will increase dramatically. The reasons are
threefold: the glut of post-1980s built ships, most of which are
nearing the end of their sailing life; the increase in container
ships, which has reduced the use of general cargo ships; and new
maritime regulations that require double hulls for tankers, making
many existing tankers obsolete.
A majority of the world’s ships are built in countries like Japan,
South Korea and China. These constructions fill orders placed by
industrialized nations, including Japan, UK, Greece, USA, Norway,
Singapore, and Denmark. But when it comes to scrapping obsolete
ships, there is a dramatic concentration in South Asian nations. Two
decades ago, 79 countries engaged in some ship recycling activity.
Today, 90% of that work is completed in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan.
Ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh alone dismantle about 90 giant
ships, mostly oil tankers, every year.
There is little doubt that this is risky work. The International
Labor Organization (ILO) and the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxic
Products have extensively documented the dangers of this industry.
The most obvious risk is from industrial accidents, especially
explosions from leftover gas and fumes. Gas explosions have killed 50
workers in India and over 100 in Bangladesh. Even if a ship is
gas-free, there can be many other accidents while using torches, saws,
and grinders, especially because many workers do not have helmets,
goggles or safety nets. What is more hotly debated is the level of
toxins inside the ships. According to the ILO, the typical chemicals
that are released during the ship scrapping process include asbestos,
lead, arsenic, chromates and mercury. But the shipping lines refuse
to acknowledge these toxins, for fear of being held in violation of
the Basel Ban on exporting toxins.
>From Accident To Industry
Shipbreaking came to Bangladesh via a strange set of circumstances,
first as a result of a cyclone, and then a civil war. Bangladesh’s
entry to the Indian Ocean is the Bay of Bengal, a particularly deep
approach where the differential between high and low tide is over six
meters. This makes it ideal for bringing giant ships as close as
possible to the shoreline. This geographic advantage came to the
attention of locals after a 1965 cyclone that beached a giant cargo
ship on the beaches of Chittagong. Unable to rescue the ship, the
owner finally abandoned it. In a country starved for raw materials,
the local demand for steel was too high for the beached ship to stay
only a curiosity. A few days after the accident, local businessmen
started tearing the vessel apart. In a short period, the entire
structure was stripped bare by hundreds of people who carried away
everything on board. The accident had caused the loss of a good ship,
but had given a bounty of free steel and other recyclable materials to
This would-be industry stayed dormant until 1971, when the Pakistani
army launched a crackdown on its eastern province (now Bangladesh).
In the civil war that followed, a prime target was the Bay of Bengal
shipping trade. Bangladesh emerged from a nine-month war as a newly
independent nation with a shattered infrastructure. Among the
numerous crises facing the new country were the crippled ships that
were blocking the entrance to Chittagong’s port. Hastily arranging a
makeshift auction, the government sold two of these ships to the only
bidder, local businessman Shirazul Islam Chowdhury. Although the new
socialist government was nationalizing all businesses, shipbreaking
was not considered an industry and was free from intervention.
The methods used by Chowdhury to break apart the two ships were manual
and low-tech, and they set the template for the future industry.
Hundreds of workers climbed aboard the hull and took apart steel
plates by hammering out rivets one by one — a process that took weeks
for just one plate. In order to bring sections of the ship further
inland, the workers jerry-rigged crude mechanical pulleys using cogs,
wheels and steel cables from the ship. Lacking powered machinery,
hundreds of men used these pulleys to drag sections of the ship
ashore. Once deeper inland, they could be taken apart at a faster
rate. Today, blowtorches and other cutting equipment are more common
than they were in 1972. But every ship that comes to the Chittagong
yards is still taken apart in a labor-intensive process that has not
changed much in thirty years.
One key issue was that the ships were made of steel plates in a form
that could not be used by local industry. To cope with this,
ship-breakers also invested in re-rolling mills. These mills melt
down the steel from the ships and recast them into rods or other
shapes that can be used by steel factories. In the early days,
Chowdhury even used diesel and engine oil from the ships to fuel his
furnaces. Expelling massive quantities of black smoke into the air,
the re-rolling mills did immense damage to the air of once-pristine
Chittagong beach. But no one in Bangladesh was paying much attention
to environmental standards at that time.
In the 1970s, the lack of regulation caused the number of shipbreaking
yards to mushroom. The government’s antiquated import codes did not
even have taxes on ships that were being imported for scrapping.
Eventually, the bureaucracy did impose some regulations, reducing the
number of yards to 37. But for the most part, this is still a highly
unregulated industry. Because it directly and indirectly employs
almost 300,000 people, and provides 80% of the country’s steel needs,
government agencies are loath to “tamper with success.” As the amount
of business continues to increase, the pressure is to be more
efficient, not necessarily eco-friendly. William Langewiesche, a
journalist who investigated both the India and Bangladesh yards,
described the trade-off:
“There was a vast and fast growing population of people living close
to starvation, who would work hard for a dollar or two a day, keep the
unions out, and accept injuries and deaths without complaint. Neither
they nor the government authorities would dream of making an issue of
labor or environmental conditions.”
India’s Troubles Begin
Developing countries compete against each other to offer the lowest
wages and least regulation. As labor and environment activists target
individual offenders, other countries rush in to lure away that
business. Bangladesh experienced this phenomenon after a series of
exposés on its garment sweatshops. Following reports by UNITE and
other labor unions, and Senator Tom Harkin’s child labor bill, the
Bangladeshi garment industry was rocked in the 1990s by intense
pressure to improve work standards. In the subsequent decade, many
other newly industrialized countries have eaten away at Bangladesh’s
sizable lead in the garment industry. There are many reasons for this,
but factory owners partially blame rights activists.
Even as Bangladesh was suffering losses in the garment industry, the
country gained traction in shipbreaking precisely because activists
were targeting their main competition. A series of investigative
reports made India’s Alang yards a symbol of dirty shipbreaking. The
thread started with an investigation by the Baltimore Sun into the
large number of military vessels that were abandoned on the Baltimore
docks. These ships were government-owned vessels that could not be
sent overseas for scrapping because of an EPA ban on exporting PCBs
(polychlorinated biphenyls), which were in the ship’s hydraulic and
electrical system. But because the cost of dismantling them was too
prohibitive, the US firms that had been given this job had either gone
bankrupt or abandoned the work. The reporters realized there were
many more commercial vessels, also carrying the same toxins but not
subject to the export ban. Following the trail, they landed at Alang,
which was scrapping more than half the world’s ships.
The investigation resulted in a Pulitzer-prize winning report on
Alang, portrayed as a dangerous work site with incredibly high levels
of toxins. The story gained momentum because of Europe-wide interest,
particularly in Holland where it became a national issue. In 1998,
Greenpeace published its own report on Alang. The report made the
explosive claim that there were approximately 365 deaths a year from
accidents, which resulted in the slogan: “Every day one ship, every
day one dead.”
Experienced in running campaigns that create international symbols,
Greenpeace targeted P&O Nedlloyd, an Anglo-Dutch cargo company that
sold ships in the Asian market. Public protests outside P&O offices
were followed by the company being caught in the act of painting over
the name of one of its Asia-bound ships. These confrontations led to
intervention at the highest policy levels. Shipbreaking was inserted
into the meeting agendas of the European Union and the International
Maritime Organization. A Netherlands-sponsored international
shipbreaking conference opened with a fiery denunciation of the
industry by the Dutch Minister of Transport. In the US,
Representative George Miller said:
“The American people have been promised that the globalization of the
economy and the liberalization of trade would not turn out to be a
race to the bottom. In the shipbreaking business, Alang, India is
about as far down as you can go.”
The Alang yards were now under pressure to reform their operations.
One key step was the requirement that all ships provide a gas-free
certificate. In response, ship owners looked for countries with fewer
requirements and many more ships were now sent to the Bangladesh
yards. Western activism and policy, by focusing on Alang rather than
calling for structural change, may have accelerated the “race to the
bottom” that Representative Miller wanted to avoid.
Chasing Toxic Ships
In its rush to enter world markets, Bangladesh has had a complicated
history both as a source for cheap labor and as a dumping ground for
unregulated products. The issue of rights and regulations in
industries that are connected to global trade has always been a
delicate dance. Because of the experience of the garment industry,
local media sometimes hesitate to critique other trade-oriented
industries. Shipbreaking is toxic and dangerous mainly to those
employed by the yards. Because of this, there is also little spillage
into the consumer space that would create mass awareness of the issue.
In 2006, Bangladesh’s shipbreaking business was finally forced out of
the shadows because of a series of legal actions. Armed with
Greenpeace’s list of 50 toxic ships that were bound for scrapping,
environmental activists started filing lawsuits against the Bangladesh
government. Faced with a court order and intense media coverage, the
government banned the asbestos-laden ship SS Norway (formerly SS
France), which had been docked in Malaysian waters for years looking
for a destination. In an illustration of the techniques the industry
uses to avoid scrutiny, the ship even changed its name to Blue Lady in
the middle of court proceedings. The government action marked a huge
defeat for the Bangladeshi shipbreaker who purchased the vessel for
$13 million. The ship was sent to India after Bangladesh’s rejection,
where it was again blocked by legal action. During the same period,
French President Jacques Chirac ordered another asbestos-lined ship,
Clemenceau, to return from India. This came after diplomatic
wrangling and a French court’s order to stop the transfer, in response
to legal action by Greenpeace and anti-asbestos groups.
In an example of increased cooperation among activists, major European
NGOs joined representatives from Bangladesh and India to form the NGO
Platform on Shipbreaking. This coalition was instrumental in tracking
ships like the SS Norway from Bangladesh to India. Following this
success, emboldened NGOs targeted two other ships from Greenpeace’s
list that were headed to Bangladesh — the Mongolian flag carrier MV
Teem (renamed from MV Lady Fatema to evade the list) and the
Bahamian-registered Alfaship. The controversy over Alfaship prompted
its owners to protest to the Bangladeshi press: “The Alfaship is a
standard type of oil tanker no different from other tankers legally
sold for demolition in Bangladesh this year or in past years.”
Mapping Global Solutions
Although the NGO groups gained significant victories this year, there
are tactical limits to interventions via ship-chasing. Ship ownership
and registration operates through a complex system of FOC (Flags Of
Convenience, often tax havens like the Bahamas) through which 50% of
the world’s ships are registered. This makes it difficult to hold any
government accountable for sending a “dirty” ship. As a result, the
pressure for reform focuses only on the destination countries.
Advocates insist that developed nations need to take the primary
steps, by guaranteeing that ships are not sent with toxic content, by
forcing FOC tax havens to abide by international regulatory
frameworks, and by enforcing the Basel Ban on export of toxic waste.
Many people in Bangladesh watch the debate over toxic ships nervously.
They fear that activists will deprive them of a growing industry and
critical revenue. Industrialists point to the strong local demand for
steel and claim that, without shipbreaking, industrial development
will shrink. The business sector exerts pressure to maintain the
status quo, including keeping out trade unions. To counter the harsh
reputation of the work, others have portrayed the inventiveness,
resilience, and pride displayed by many of the men working on the
Chittagong yards. Because every part of the ship, down to toilet
fixtures, is recycled and sold on the local market, supporters even
call it a “100% Green Industry” and urge activists not to target this
The arguments against toxic ships are familiar, as are the typical
responses. One argument is that developing nations also need a
“dirty” period of industrialization, as western nations had in the
past. This is the perennial question for poor countries. Should they
accept lower environmental standards in order to get a share of world
trade? Should future generations be left to deal with the potential
When the Indian yards were being investigated, one local resident
asked journalist, William Langewiesche:
“The question I want to ask the environmentalists is if you should
want to die first of starvation or pollution.”
It is a transparently inadequate binary, but one that is used to
stymie reform conversations. New theoretical frameworks and practical
solutions must be developed through debates on development, free
markets and globalization. LDCs desperately need new industries, but
the model of development at any price will render them vulnerable to
public health crises and labor disasters. Cleaning up dirty
industries must start at the source, with the shipping companies and
countries of origin. Having these ships arrive free of toxic
ingredients would be an important first step. In the shipbreaking
nations, unionization and safety standards have been resisted in the
name of “staying competitive.” NGOs and activist groups in Bangladesh
need to push for reforms that will create sustainable development.
The challenge is to keep competitive industries like shipbreaking in
Bangladesh, while making them truly “100% green.”
Buerk, Roland, Breaking Ships: How Supertankers and Cargo Ships are
Dismantled on the Beaches of Bangladesh, Penguin Books, 2006.
CBC News, The Big Break, February 2005.
Corr, Brendan, “End of the Line,” Foreign Policy, January 2006.
Daily Star, January-May, 2006.
Det Norske Veritas, Decommissioning of Ships, Report 2000-3158, May 2000.
FIDH Report, “Where do the ‘floating dustbins’ end up?” December 2002.
Gohre, Sanja, “From shipyard to graveyard: Is there a decent way to
break ships?” World Of Work, December 2000.
Langewiesche, William, “The Shipbreakers,” Atlantic Monthly, August 2000.
Miller, Hon. George, Statement to the House Committee on Resources,
March 5, 1998.
Salgado, Sebastião, Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age,
Phaidon, 1997.