Dismantling giant ocean-going tankers is the second-largest industry in Bangladesh and provides over 80 percent of the country’s iron. Every last piece of a ship is burnt, recycled or, if valuable (generators, engines, pumps, furniture, even lifeboats), resold in the many second-hand markets that crowd the highway beside the yards. One quarter of the world’s shipbreaking needs are managed here, within a twenty-kilometre stretch of beach just north of Chittagong. This is where the world’s ships go to die.
Many North Americans have become aware of this graveyard of iron and steel through the spectacular landscapes images of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. This beach, however, is also a graveyard for the workers themselves. Cutting apart ocean-weathered metal and handling heavy shards, the barefooted workers must negotiate sharp objects buried in the sand, hazardous toxic substances and improperly cleaned interiors. As if that weren’t dangerous enough, they work with blowtorches, steel cutters and other high-risk equipment without proper training.
Between twenty-five and thirty thousand people dismantle ships in Bangladesh every day—some of them children as young as ten years old. A dearth of workplace safety regulations have made on-site accidents, injuries and fatalities common; in the past twenty years, over four hundred workers have died and over six thousand have been seriously injured. Perhaps out of fear of losing its international competitive edge (and inhibiting the flow of cheap labour), the Bangladeshi government has never formally recognized the industry. Carefully, the workers work on.