This is a valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where broken hulks and smoldering wrecks grow out of the mud flats, into ridges and hills and grotesque steel gardens. Occasionally a tired tanker crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest. Immediately the ash-gray men move dimly, crumbling through powdery air, and swarm up with leaden spades to stir an impenetrable cloud.
Armed with little more than bare hands and rudimentary tools, these workers cleave and rip and carve the ghostly hulls of oceangoing vessels. The ships come from all over the world — Russia, China, Holland, even the U.S. — eventually washing up on the shores of Chittagong to be gradually dismantled, piece by painstaking piece.
This stretch of beach, thick with the acrid fumes of burning steel and paint, has established itself as one of the world’s primary sites for the recycling of large commercial ships, including oil tankers. Low labor costs and lax environmental regulations have seen similar sites spring up across the subcontinent — in Alang, Karachi and even as far afield as Aliaga in Turkey.
This is the darker side of recycling, far removed from a pleasant culture of diligent reuse and inspired repurposing. The reality of recycling in Chittagong is a hellish cauldron of fire, smoke and beating sun, closer to scavenging than recovery. Recycling here is not an ethical option; it is a grim imperative, ensuring survival.
“What else I can do other than risking my life to work in this place? I have a family to feed back home and this is the best job that I could find. But, I know I can die anytime or get badly injured. And then there will be nobody to take care of me.”
The risk of injury or death is extreme. Every year, thousands are maimed or crippled for life — little surprise given the working conditions in the yard. Workers scale rickety rope ladders to sheer iron railings, weighty clumps of steel and debris fall through the air, toxic vapors fill the atmosphere and powerful welding equipment is routinely operated without proper eye protection. All this for wages as low as 100 taka a day (around $1.50).
The harvest reaped from these gigantic wrecks provides one of Bangladesh’s primary sources of metal and is a valuable source of revenue for the local economy. Currently, the cost of breaking large ships in developed countries (including removing deadly asbestos linings), along with potentially expensive insurance and health risks, has rendered ship breaking no longer economically viable in many parts of the world.
In more developed countries, the process of removing metal for scrap often costs more than the eventual sale value of the scrap itself. Yet in countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, shipyards operate without the risk of injury claims or the expense of properly equipped and trained workers, making the process altogether more lucrative — if no less stomach churning.
These moving images were taken by Saiful Huq, the latest in a long line of talented Bangladeshi photographers documenting the living and working conditions of their homeland. Saiful claims that from his “very first days as a photographer” he wanted to tell stories. These ghostly shots do just that, but it’s not a story that makes for comfortable viewing — especially for those who reside in the countries manufacturing the ships that find their way to Chittagong.
Bangladesh’s ship breaking industry feeds 3 million people a year and provides the bulk of the metal making up new additions to the nation’s infrastructure. However, as Saiful so succinctly points out, “the magnificent buildings, bridges and flyovers of tomorrow are being built with iron from these yards… but the people who make it possible, risking their own lives for $2 a day, will never be in those skyscrapers.”
The ethical concerns that surround ship breaking yards across the Indian subcontinent are complex and intersecting. On the one hand, they provide a ready source of employment and income for thousands of workers and their families, as well as fueling the economy of several burgeoning nations. Yet unfortunately, such employment, opportunity and growth do not equal prosperity. Pitifully low wages, as well as the risk of injury and harm, are very pressing realities; is there not a sense in which the nations sending their ships to these yards are adopting a damaging, “out of sight, out of mind” policy? This policy is not far from feeding scraps to a dog to dispose of them.
Whatever our personal perspective, we’d do well to remember that recycling is not always the principled lifestyle we envisage it to be. For some, recycling is a necessity, a means to feeding and clothing their families, and one that makes good use of the detritus of developed countries, preventing waste; but we should ask ourselves, what price are we prepared to pay for a greener world? Many thanks to Saiful Huq for allowing us to use his beautiful photo set, “Life in the Ship Breaking Yard.” If you’d like to see the full set of these wonderful images, as well as Saiful Huq’s other work, visit his site here.