There aren’t too many places left in the world where the practice of ship breaking—scrapping old ships for metal—can still exist. These days, environmental and labor regulations in the developed world have displaced the practice to India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, where cargo carriers are salvaged for their steel.
The largest vessels wind up on the shores of the city of Chittagong in Bangladesh, where the industry has become a vital part of the country’s urbanization. It employs roughly 200,000 workers and supplies the country with 80 percent of its steel. Shipbreakers beach and dismantle vessels daily wearing flip-flops and T-shirts. It’s no easy task, considering ships are constructed to withstand the elements for the 30 years they spend operating on international waters. We decided to check it out.
In 1960, after a severe cyclone, the Greek ship M D Alpine was stranded on the shores of Sitakunda, Chittagong. It could not be re-floated and so remained there for several years. In 1965, Chittagong Steel House bought the ship and had it scrapped. It took years to scrap the vessel, but the work gave birth to the industry in Bangladesh.
During the Bangladesh Liberation War, a Pakistani ship Al Abbas was damaged by bombing. Later on, the ship was salvaged by a Soviet team who were working at Chittagong port at the time and the ship was brought to the Faujdarhat seashore. A local company, Karnafully Metal Works Ltd bought it as scrap in 1974 and introduced commercial ship breaking in the country.
The industry grew steadily through the 1980s and, by the middle of the 1990s, the country ranked number two in the world by tonnage scrapped. In 2008, there were 26 ship breaking yards in the area, and in 2009 there were 40. From 2004 to 2008, the area was the largest ship-breaking yard in the world. However, by 2012 it had dropped from half to a fifth of worldwide ship-breaking.
At one stage the industry was a tourist attraction, but outsiders are no longer welcome due to its poor safety record; a local watchdog group claims that one worker dies a week on average.
Workers have neither protective equipment nor financial security. In 2014, shipping company Hapag-Lloyd followed an earlier decision by Maersk to stop using the yard for breaking its old ships, despite the higher costs elsewhere.