Where ships go to die – Bangladesh’s ship-breaking yards

Bangladesh has become famous for both, ship-building and ship-breaking. While the first has become a major promising industry in recent years, the latter has drawn international attention on the country’s risky working conditions, environmental pollution and the adoption of child labor. Changes occurred but are far from international standards.

words & photographs by Michael Biach

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Bangladesh’s infamous ship-breaking yards in Chittagong. 

“The real deal is made with the ship’s steel,” explains Mostafa, pointing with outstretched hand in the direction of the many shipyards, located behind closely guarded steel doors on the beaches of Sitakund. Mostafa is 28, speaks perfect English and works as a guide and fixer in Chittagong.

“Journalists and photographers are no longer welcome”

Bangladesh’s scrapping industry has made negative headlines in recent years. “Journalists and photographers are no longer welcome here,” Mostafa warns tirelessly and strongly advises against over-intensive research or even entering the shipyards. In recent years environmental and human rights organizations have repeatedly tried to draw attention to the almost incomprehensible conditions in the shipyards. Catastrophic working conditions, environmental degradation and repeated injuries and deaths determine the sad reality of the hardest industry in the country.

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above: scenes from shipbreaking- and shipbuilding areas in Bangladesh.

In dark nights, when the water level is particularly high due to the tides, experienced captains carefully navigate disused freighters and tankers to the shallow shore along the endless beaches of the Bay of Bengal. “Beaching” is part of a global business. At some point, freighters begin their final journey. Previously, international brokers in London or Dubai set the price for steel, and ship-owners sell their discarded ships to international scrapping companies for a price per ton of ship’s scrap.

© Google Maps

Actually, ships from industrialized countries may not be resold to developing countries since 1998, according to the Basel Toxic Waste Agreement. Nevertheless, almost all ships land on intermediaries on Asia’s shores. In 2010, the Supreme Court in Bangladesh decided not to allow any vessels that did not comply with previously defined environmental standards. According to a World Bank study, up to 200,000 jobs in Bangladesh are directly related to ship dismantling, with more than half of the country’s steel needs coming from Chittagong shipyards. Under pressure from the ship-breaking industry, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, prime minister of the country, soon defused the law.

After a discarded ship has been successfully maneuvered ashore, hundreds of workers begin to tear apart the steel body until nothing remains of the sea’s former giants. They cannot hope for expensive and professional work clothes.

After tense negotiations, access to one of the shipyards is possible. “The scrapping of ships on the coast of Bangladesh has become one of the most important industries in the country,” explains Rafik, a 30-year-old shipyard employee. “People need these jobs and somewhere the ships have to be taken apart,” he adds.

As scrapping in industrialized nations such as the US, Germany, Canada or Italy became unprofitable due to increasing labor and environmental protection in the 1980s, the scrapping industry in Asia’s developing countries made a spectacular triumphant advance. In 2008, Bangladesh was number one in the world with 26 ship recycling yards. It seems almost paradoxical, but with the height of the global economic crisis, which brought sinking freight rates, the order situation in the shipyards have multiplied. More and more ships of the outmoded world merchant fleet began their final journey to the beaches of Asia.

“At the bow of the freighter oil barrels rest in the mud”

This boom is taking a big toll. The scenery in the shipyard quickly confirms all known prejudices about the terrible working conditions. Equipped only with sandals or even barefoot, the mostly very young men stomp through the splintered oily mud.

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Suddenly, a winch is activated and separates another element of the wreck under loud noise. The welders rush to the new piece of steel and begin to dismantle it. Without adequate work equipment, they protect themselves only with sunglasses and headscarves against smoke and sparks.

Everyone is always on the move. The success of the enterprise, and thus the pay of the workers, depends above all on how quickly the ship can be dismantled and the steel can be resold. The needs of the people are given little consideration.

The danger to the environment is visible at the shipyard. At the bow of the freighter oil barrels rest in the mud. Their content will inevitably get into the sea with the next flood along with sealants, heavy metals and paints. A few hundred meters away from the beach fishing boats float in the sea. In the evening they will offer their daily catch –  contaminated with cadmium, lead and arsenic – at the local market.

Mostafa urges to stop asking questions and stop taking photos. The owners of the shipyards do not like unexpected visits.

“Poverty and hunger are stronger than the fear of injury and death”

A few years ago, director Shaheen Dill-Riaz, originally from Bangladesh and now living in Germany, returned to the once-white beach of his youth to draw attention to the precarious situation of temporary workers with his documentary “Die Eisenfresser” (Iron Eaters). The multitude of migrant workers comes from the poor north of the country, where crop failures and annual flooding through the monsoon usually make it impossible for them and their families to care. The shipyards in the south of the country offer them the only way to escape the misery. The workers are initially unaware of the danger and exertion, are usually hired in the north without ever having even heard of a shipyard before.

As day laborers, men can decide for themselves how long and how often they work on the yards. However, they do not have a guarantee for regular wages. Often payouts are delayed, leaving nothing to be left after deduction for accommodation and expenses at local retailers. It is not uncommon for workers to return to the north with disillusionment and little merit. Many swear never to return. But Mostafa corrects this view. “A lot of the workers keep coming back, just going home to order their fields,” he says. Poverty and hunger are stronger than the fear of injury and death in shipwrecks.

Whether the conditions on the shipyards will change? Mostafa is skeptical. “In Bangladesh, there is a stark difference between those who have little and those who have nothing,” he says soberly. With an income in mind, workers will risk their lives in this bleak environment, hoping that they will be happy enough to see their families again in the end.

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  1. I remember seeing a documentary on this topic, and it was both shocking and sad to see. A few months later I was in Genoa where I saw that cruise ship, Costa Concordia, being demolished for recycling. She sat in a dry dock, with barely a drop of oil or scrap of paper (none, in fact) polluting the nearby water. But what was the price of doing it that way, versus the one of doing it in Bangladesh?

  2. Stumble upon you at GKB’s site and reading travel documentary, sociology and finding out what life outside me. I will be hanging around to read your articles.

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