Like voracious ants, the columns of workers set about their task, stripping the gargantuan gray hulks down to nothing. This coastal strip of southeastern Bangladesh is where some of the oceans’ largest vessels meet their end, turned into scrap by thousands of men and, sadly, children. The shipbreaking industry is among Bangladesh’s most important. The nearly 70 companies whose recycling yards line the beaches of Chittagong, the country’s main port, generate around $1.3 billion annually. The salvaged steel accounts for some 80% of the country’s domestic consumption. But the job is also considered among the world’s most dangerous, and an E.U. ruling in late June means this lucrative yet hazardous trade isn’t likely to change for the better.
When the U.S. suspended trade privileges for Bangladesh on June 27, it cited the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April and the Tazreen Fashion factory fire in November as evidence of the Bangladeshi government’s failure to create decent working conditions for its people. But little has been said of the country’s shipyards. Following a lengthy debate, also on June 27, the E.U. concluded that European-flagged vessels could still be beached and broken up on the shoreline at Chittagong (and at other beaches in India and Pakistan), provided they go to yards that implement proper measures for handling the toxic waste generated in the process. It’s a small victory for the global green lobby, which has fought to reduce the amount of hazardous material — like asbestos, PCB and lead — that leech into the sand and sea each time a ship is stripped. Workers, however, remain imperiled.
Media are rarely granted access to the yards. TIME surveyed them from a chartered boat that sailed closely along the shoreline and interviewed several workers, who agreed to discuss working conditions so long as they could remain anonymous. With little safety equipment save for hardhats, they climb ladders 30 m high inside the dark bowels of the vessels, using blowtorches to cut through chunks of metal that can weigh up to 20 tons. Co-workers, many of whom flock from the poorest parts of Bangladesh, uneducated and unqualified, stand below waiting for the metal to come crashing down. Sometimes so do the cutters.
“Four or five months ago I saw someone fall four stories from a ladder and land on top of scrap metal. His face was the first thing to hit the floor,” recalls a 26-year-old worker, who has been working in the yards for seven years. (The victim in question survived, but others are less fortunate.)
As the recent tragedies of the garment industry show, safety standards for Bangladesh’s low-paid labor force are painfully lacking. Shipbreaking Platform, a Brussels-based coalition of groups that advocate for better conditions in the Chittagong yards, says 15 people died in the area last year. (The total on-site workforce is around 30,000.) One victim, Korshed Alam, was crushed by a falling metal plate. He was just 16.
One worker remembers an incident 10 years ago when a 40,000-ton oil tanker arrived at a nearby yard without having the highly flammable gases still contained within its holds properly drawn off. It exploded. “The bodies just flew out like birds. Maybe 100 people died,” he says. Another winces as he sits down to speak to TIME. The 23-year-old hasn’t been able to work for a year — last July he was sent up a ladder to cut down a piece of metal that others had been unable to shift. It swung down into his right abdomen, shattering five ribs and damaging his urinary tract. His company paid for a month of treatment, but he is still in pain and, unable to work, has to sell his possessions to survive.
Yet the business continues because, as a poor nation, Bangladesh has little choice. “To develop we need a lot of steel, and importing the finished product becomes very expensive,” says Mohammed Mohsin, head of one of Bangladesh’s largest shipbreaking companies, PHP Group. “We say these vessels are like floating iron-ore mines.” Every part of the ship is recycled — not just the steel — and stores line the highway to the yards selling items that have been carried off, from bathroom sinks to gas cylinders and rubber pipes.
Shipyard owners acknowledge the risks for workers, but say outside pressure has led to improvement. Mohsin’s yard was visited by the International Labour Organization four years ago; he now keeps medics on site and claims to have a water-treatment program. The toxins released when ships are broken down are highly corrosive for both environment and worker. (Many workers report breathing difficulties and itchy skin, but at around $4 a day, wages are too low to pay for treatment.) The E.U. requirement that yards improve the handling of hazardous materials is a step in the right direction, but it also threatens to thwart member countries’ adoption of the 2009 Hong Kong Convention, which aims to protect both workers and the environment, and not merely the latter. Simon Bennett, from the International Chamber of Shipping, warns that differences in legislation could render E.U. member states unable to ratify the more encompassing Hong Kong Convention. Without this, he says, there may be “no improvements in South Asian yards.”
Despite the danger, children also come for work. One 12-year-old has already worked a year as a “cutter’s helper,” carrying blowtorches and occasionally climbing a high ladder to help dislodge metal slabs. He recently saw the leg of one worker crushed under falling metal. Another boy, 13, among a group of workers interviewed in a Chittagong hotel room, says there were no barriers when it came to getting a job as a minor. “I came and asked if I could work. They said yes.” Mohsin says he does not use children in his yard, but still defends the practice. “We bring the children into this world; they need three basic things: food, shelter, clothing. Our parents cannot provide those, our government cannot afford to provide those. What are those children going to do if they don’t work?”
NGOs want to ban toxic end-of-life ships being beached at these yards until major efforts are undertaken to stem pollution and improve conditions for workers, including better training, mechanization of equipment and provision of on-site medics. But such groups are ranged against the owners of a multimillion-dollar business and a government eager for cheap, domestically produced steel. And because shipping is not a retail industry, the powerful international consumer pressure brought to bear on fashion brands that manufacture their products in Bangladeshi sweatshops is absent. A funky pair of jeans is one thing. But there’s no glamour in an old oil tanker.