Shipbreaking is a controversial industry. It used to be a highly mechanized operation, concentrated in industrialized countries. In the ’80s, in order to maximize profit, ship owners began sending their vessels to the scrapyards of India (Alang), Pakistan or Bangladesh. In these places salary, health, safety and working standards are minimal and the workers are desperate for work.

The positive economic and recycling impacts are thus far counterbalanced by the human and labor rights violations and the resulting environmental pollution. Bangladesh’s largest ship-breaking area is directly settled on an open beach (no dry dock) in the Bay of Bengal, near Chittagong, the second largest city in the country. Children working barefoot on sheet metal, workers breathing asbestos all day long or risking an explosion from fuel residues in the ships, huge amounts of toxic materials dumped directly into the sea on the open beach—these are just some examples of the everyday life of the ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh.

In recent years, legal battles have been undertaken by NGOs including Young Power and Social Action (YPSA) and Bangladeshi Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA). Unfortunately, the status quo that exists benefits the Bangladesh government greatly by way of taxes and the availability of raw material.

Western governments, in the countries where most of the ships originate, have adopted the same attitude. The fact that many foreign oil tankers and cargo ships have to be decommissioned during future years must also be contributing to this failure to act.

Despite the Basel Convention (ratified by Bangladesh and Western countries) which limits the trans-boundary movements of hazardous waste, as well as the decisions handed down by the Bangladesh High Court in 2009 about the obligation of those yards to have environmental clearance, shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh continue to violate the law. Of the 36 ship-breaking yards in Chittagong, zero have environmental clearance.

Shipbreaking yard owners are, of course, aware of the situation and meticulously keep their doors closed to journalists and NGOs, contributing to a lack of information and documentation on this issue. My work intends to fill this gap, in order to better understand what is happening in the ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh. This work was made possible by several weeks of negotiation with people involved in the maritime trade as well as by shipbreaking yard managers and local foremen. I also used means of unofficial access by cooperating with fishermen, who would take me to the shipbreaking yards at night, when the security was low.

YPSA, the main NGO in Bangladesh that deals with this issue, estimates that about 100,000 workers worldwide are employed in shipbreaking in Bangladesh. Thousands have already died over the last 20 years due to accidents (excluding those maimed or dead from diseases caused by the toxic fumes and materials workers are exposed to). Greenpeace, FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights) and ILO (International Labour Organisation) have now created an NGO called “Platform on Shipbreaking” to raise awareness about this industry, one that they consider among the deadliest in the world.

—Pierre Torset

Editor’s note: We discovered Pierre Torset’s work when judging the 2010 Anthropographia Awards for Human Rights and Photography.