The poorly regulated ship breaking industry in Bangladesh is estimated to generate annual revenues of $1.5 billion. Globally some 700 ocean-going vessels are scrapped each year, and more than 100 of them are scrapped in Bangladesh. 

One of the largest sites is located at a beach north of the city of Chittagong in Bangladesh. Decommissioned ships are abandoned at the shores, and left for scavengers. Some of the ships are 350 meters long and weigh up to 15,000 tons. Such beach-front operations are prohibited and illegal in most countries.

Ship breaking generates a lot of jobs, and it is estimated that some 30,000-50,000 people are directly employed in the ship breaking industry in Bangladesh. Additionally, another 100,000 are indirectly involved in the business.

Most of the laborers are hired by the shipyards through local contractors on a ship-by-ship basis. A laborer earns around 1 to 3 dollars per day depending on the type of work. Some 300-500 people are typically employed on a temporary basis for dismantling a single ship, and many more are employed in downstream activities for recycling of all kind of materials from the ships.

Ship breaking in Bangladesh just requires a large winch, some blowtorches and maybe a bulldozer — not a lot of investment. The rest of the operation is raw human manpower. Labor is extremely cheap, environmental and labor standards are not enforced, and no pre-cleaning of the ships is required. Ship breaking is therefore a lucrative business with few risks for the yard owners, investors and moneylenders.

But working in the ship breaking yards is a very dangerous job, which involves high human and environmental risks. Workers are often exposed to asbestos used for insulation in older ships, and to paint containing lead, cadmium and arsenic. Workers often die by gas poisoning or explosions and fires. It also happens that workers can be crushed by tumbling or falling steel parts. Sometimes workers fall from the high sides of ships on which they are working without safety harnesses. Many of the oxyacetylene cutters work without goggles. Few wear protective clothing.

It is estimated that half of the workers are under 22 years old, and nearly half of them are illiterate. Some believe that 20 percent of the total work force consists of children. The laborers or their families are poorly compensated when injured or killed. 

Local organizations in Bangladesh estimate that some 1000-2000 workers have died in the last 30 years, and many more have suffered serious injuries. General health statistics show that the percentage of people with disabilities in the Chittagong area is above average for the country as a whole, because many workers have lost limbs or became disabled otherwise from working in the ship breaking yards.

The government of Bangladesh has recently introduced new national policies and legislation to improve the environmental and occupational health and safety standards in the ship breaking yards. But there is a long way to go. Governance is poor, and enforcement of policies and laws is often non-existent. Politicians and decision makers have vested interests in the industry, and corruption is widespread, making it difficult to enforce rules and regulations.

— Jan Møller Hansen