Cameron Conaway explores the Human Rights abuses in Chittagong’s notorious shipbreaking yards. Photographs by Pierre Torset.

The Good Men Project / July 19, 2012

by Cameron Conaway

“The supervisor beats us.”

“I have swallowed much fume. When you have gas inside your body you can’t eat.”

“I drink water, but it’s so polluted I feel that I drink metal. I have no choice.”

“When I’m lying on my bed the images of the dead come back.”

Emaciated men with torn clothing, dulled eyes and missing fingers carry cables caked with rust on bare shoulders made browner with dried blood. Scarred young boys in toxic slick mud up to their knees drag themselves barefoot into the oiled earth to find sharp scraps of iron. The June heat blazes and seems to thicken the polluted air and louden the blasting and pounding. Atop ships far larger than I ever imagined are men the size of fingernails. Security guards dressed in blue leaf camouflage and strapped with semi-automatic machine guns stand at the gates in front of weathered billboards that read: “No Child Labor. Safety First.”

Viscerally, it’s all too clear. Slavery exists here. As does exploitative child labor. And black ocean waters. And black plume skies brightened only with blowtorch flame. The industry seems to flaunt its illegalities like badges of honor. I’m not the first to paint the hell-on-earth picture of “the yards” and hopefully I’m not the last. But while pictures may be worth a thousand words they can’t share a full-bodied story the way Daniel Schorn of CBS did in 2009. His opening paragraph has become the mantra of those looking to reform the shipbreaking industry:

We all know how ships are born, how majestic vessels are nudged into the ocean with a bottle of champagne. But few of us know how they die. And hundreds of ships meet their death every year. From five-star ocean liners, to grubby freighters, literally dumped with all their steel, their asbestos, their toxins on the beaches of some of the poorest countries in the world, countries like Bangladesh.”

I came to Chittagong to study Bangladesh’s efforts to combat malaria among the hill tract people for a book titled Malaria: Poems, but I quickly became enthralled with shipbreaking. I’d never heard of it or even thought about what happens to old ships until I began researching Chittagong, and even then I naively assumed that because the BBC and others had internationally lambasted it that, ya know, things had been fixed.

My first impression of the yards was one of fear. The ships are the size of buildings and tilted at all sorts of angles due to the wet sand. It seemed that they had to fall, that no matter how they fell they could crush people within miles on all sides. Once the fear receded disappointment rushed in. First it was an unfounded disappointment at the local community for sitting back and allowing this to continue. Second was disappointment in the international community for not stepping in with the mighty world-policing powers of which I’m rarely a fan. Third was disappointment at the craft to which I’ve given a considerable portion of my life. Terrific writers have covered this problem, I thought to myself as I gazed out into the madness, yet it is still here menacing in my face and ugly as hell. This last disappointment of course became a personal disappointment. What the hell am I doing with my life?

♦◊♦

Muhammad Ali Shahin is the Program Manager for Advocacy at Young Power in Social Action (YPSA) in Chittagong. YPSA is by far the most diverse and effective NGO I’ve come across in all my travels. Through them I saw stroke patients they had rehabilitated cry with joy at each step because of their ability to walk again. I met tribespeople in secluded mountains who no longer feared malaria because YPSA had provided them with nets and a clinic at the bottom of the hill. I met an entire community of blind people thrilled to have a purpose in life now that YPSA had trained them how to type and create audiobooks from textbooks – they were working to create audio lectures on family planning when I first met them. Though YPSA has programs in HIV/AIDS prevention, sustainable economic development, anti-malaria efforts and support for disabled peoples, among others, Muhammad specializes in the shipbreaking industry and it was clear within two minutes of meeting him why.

“I know you have questions but let me first give you these pictures,” he said as he handed me a stack of about twenty framed photographs. He sat down beside me, put a humongous fan on the chair in front of us and turned it on full blast. “You ready?” he asked, his voice undulating through the fan’s blades. I nodded yes and so it began.

Each picture contained stories within stories. On a black-and-white picture of a man in a hospital room: “I was there the day it happened. A ship part fell and nearly split his head in half. I saw bits of his brain. We rushed him to the hospital and told his family and they were all scared to death that they’d have to sell their land and cows and house for treatment that may not work. I went to the shipbreaking boss and totally lost it. ‘Your worker is dying from that damn yard and through no fault of his own. Get in here and cover these costs or else you will find yourself in every single newspaper in the world by tomorrow morning!’”

And on he went. One incredible story after another. Muhammad was no reciting robot either, he told all of these as though for the first time and with most stories I saw tears filling his eyes. It made me wonder if the fan was to cool us off or to dry his tears. I admit using it for both.

“At 29 years-of-age most ships by law must be broken down and Chittagong is considered the #1 place in the world where this happens,” he said.

“Where do the workers come from?”

They are migrant men and boys coming from some of the poorest regions in Bangladesh. They are considered machines; if one dies another will replace him. They live up to twenty in small huts often lacking sanitation. They are contract workers and are in no way given the opportunity to organize themselves; trade unions are not allowed. There is no complete recording of accidents or death at the shipbreaking yards; dead and non-identified workers still get thrown out to sea, leaving a widow and children with no news and no income.”

“I know Syeda Rizwana Hasan won the 2009 Goldman Prize which is basically the Nobel Prize for Environment. Because of this, aren’t there laws the shipbreaking owners have to abide by in terms of environmental impact?” I asked.

Oh yes. There are a bunch of laws that either aren’t maintained or are filled with loopholes. Some laws state that ships have to be pre-cleaned of any toxic substances before being sent here. Doesn’t happen. According to the Environment Conservation Act, an industry like shipbreaking is supposed to take certain environmental measures to break a ship, but they don’t. And because its standards are not maintained in the yards, provisions in the Labour Act have also been categorically violated.

It must further be understood that the shipbreaking industry, as many other areas of Bangladeshi reality, is corrupt. Mafia-like structures are controlling the yards and in collusion with some government officials they are earning enormous sums of money. As an informal sector shipbreaking avoids having to comply with existing labor legislation; as an informal sector shipbreakers also have to pay high taxes. It seems therefore that the yard owners pay for a blind governmental eye. The ship-owners are making huge profits as well by selling their ships to Bangladesh. These profits too are corrupt as many ship-owners hide behind post-box companies registered in countries that turn a blind eye to existing human rights and environmental legislation.”

“What are the actual environmental impacts? Have you had researchers come in?” I asked. “I saw what I saw and it was gross but it seems the guards with machine guns…” I trailed off.

All child labor is not created equal… After all, there is a difference between the child happily helping mom hand out biscuits in a poor tea village and the child standing in toxic waste while breaking asbestos with a bat.

“Everyone in the world relies on the ocean whether they realize it or not. Nowhere is this clearer than Chittagong. Most of the materials on ships such as asbestos, PCBs, lead, cadmium, organotins, arsenic, zinc and chromium, black oil and burned oil have been defined as hazardous waste under the Basel Convention. Many of our people survive solely on fish that now no longer exist because these ships are being cut up by hand and on open beaches and with no consideration given to safe and environmentally-friendly waste management practices. Something like this ensures that a developing country stays forever developing….”

“It seems that the developed countries, in one sense, are creating employment here in a way that provides a short-term paycheck yet long-term and irreversible consequences. What can be done of this?”

“The polluter pays principle must be enforced. It must be. Developed countries should take responsibility for pre-cleaning vessels as far as possible before exporting them to developing countries. Poor countries and their territories are not dustbins or a dumping place for the developed world. This only widens the gap between rich and poor. People who live in developing countries have the same right to a decent job and they too need to breathe fresh air. Believe me when I say that Bangladesh has enough problems to deal with. We are one of the countries suffering the most from climate change resulting from the developed world’s CO2 emissions, not our emissions. Waste emission from shipbreaking is not our waste.”

“What would you say to someone who says you simply want to end this industry completely?”

“NGOs and media have been campaigning for so many years on this shipbreaking issue and they’ve never urged an end to the industry. They simply urged for national and international labor and environmental laws to be respected and enforced. If somebody is saying that NGOs want to stop shipbreaking then we have to assume that the yard owners and international players of shipbreaking want to avoid the compliance issues by blaming NGOs.

The highest court of Bangladesh also gave orders in line with the Basel Convention but there have been little if any changes to the hazardous practices. Yes, this industry provides much of our resource needs. Yes, it employs a ton of our people. But all of this should not come with a stipulation that says our ocean will be destroyed and our men and boys will subject to hell-on-earth. Do I want the industry to end? Of course not. But if it won’t follow some very basic rules regarding human rights then it shouldn’t exist whatsoever. We are poor but first we are humans.”

What I saw remains burned in my brain even a full month later. When I see dilapidated houses I see ships. When I saw a rainbow last week I saw the rainbow swirls of oil on top of the ocean. Although I know that the ocean, decimated by this process, will spread these men’s struggle to everyone in the country, it is the children working on the yards that still rip at my emotions. Their faces. Their little scarred bodies. The billboards in English that stood on the legs of mockery, reading “No Child Labor”.

Ideally, all children would be at school. This goes for both developed and developing countries. But ideals alone cannot bend necessity, especially when necessity is wrapped in the soft blanket of cultural custom. Children here in Bangladesh often need to work to help their families or simply do so because that’s the way it’s always been. Perhaps then, at least for now, the battle lines should be redrawn as it relates to child labor here. If we erase but leave the crucial traces of “Eradicate all child labor” and replace it with “All child labor is not created equal” maybe we can take a lesson from the yards and chisel away at the beast piece by piece. After all, there is a difference between the child happily helping mom hand out biscuits in a poor tea village and the child standing in toxic waste while breaking asbestos with a bat.

How can those faraway help? Of course, spreading awareness helps even if it’s through a Facebook “Like” or a Twitter “Retweet,” but a more tangible approach is to support those on-the-ground warriors who live and breathe this battle’s intricacies. Here are a few:

Local:

Muhammad Ali Shahin, YPSA, Email: shahin41077 (at) gmail.com

International:

– Unicef Bangladesh

– Shipbreaking Platform

– International Federation for Human Rights