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Heavy lifting, paltry wages
Heavy lifting, paltry wages
Roberto Giovannini

SITAKUND — Welcome to one of the most polluted and dangerous coastlines in the world. On this murky stretch just a few kilometers from Bangladesh’s main industrial port, Chittagong, are dozens and dozens of beached ships.

Sea carriers, oil tankers and huge containers that at the end of their lives — many that can no longer sail safely — are abandoned here to be dismantled. Sitakund, like Alang in India or Gadani in Pakistan, is one of a sort of planetary black holes where garbage from the rich world is summarily and quietly offloaded; where thousands of impoverished people dismantle entire ships with their bare hands, hammers and blowtorches, carrying the heavy metal over their shoulders.

These people slog for paltry wages — as little as 20 cents per hour — and up to 12 hours every day without any safety measures and absolutely no protection. Many of these workers are young boys who descend into these ships in their dhoti (the traditional pants made with a sheet) and slippers made out of plastic.

Meanwhile, their employers discharge tons of toxic materials from the ships straight into the waters of the Bay of Bengal. It’s black, oily and foul-smelling here with an iridescent glaze of filth as far as the eye can see.

It was conceivable that the infamous Costa Concordia cruise ship, which has recently been righted more than a year after its fatal crash in Italy, might have been sent here on the ever growing wave of globalization. But in this case, it will most likely be dismantled in an Italian shipyard — perhaps Palermo, Genoa, Naples or Piombino, with better conditions and standards. There’s also the possibility it will be sent to Turkey, where the cost is much lower and the standards for environmental risk are different.

But here in Sitakund, destroying a ship costs practically nothing. The manpower is almost free. To “check” that there are no deadly gases at the bottom of the ships, they lower down chickens. If they come back alive, then the workers are sent down.

Accidents are part of the daily routine, explains Chandan Chowdhury, coordinator of the Songshoptaque organization that advocates for the workers. “It’s better to die than get injured,” he quipped. If you die, your family has the right to 125 thousand taka (or 1,250 euro). If you are injured, you are only able to get basic treatment and are paid for three days of work.

“Once, when there weren’t mobile phones,” continues Chandan, “if there was a fatal accident, the bosses of the yard were limited to throwing the bodies into the sea. We don’t do that anymore.”

Auction blocks

The dismantling business works like this: In exchange for money, unscrupulous middlemen take ships that need to be dismantled from shipowners and then sell them on to the shipyards along the coast who dismantle them methodically.

Each piece — from a single bolt to the electrical cables, from the motors to the furnished kitchens, from the generators to the compressors — may potentially wind up for sale at an auction. They even recover the precious steel from the hull, which ends up in mills and is said to provide some 60% of the entire country’s needs for the metal. Around 30,000 people work in this construction sector, usually in cycles of 6 to 8 months before being fired.

Recycling tends to always be considered a public good, but here it comes at the expense of people and the environment. Mohammed’s “house” is in one of the slums of Chittagong. He used to be a fisherman, but it is now impossible to make a living from the toxic sea.

Alongside the “Ava,” a Japanese motorboat that was built in 1983 and came here to be dismantled, there’s a 16-year-old boy named Samhan Ali. “I’ve worked on the construction site since I was 13,” he says. “I took my father’s place after he died in an accident. There were 15 of us children. Now, I’m unemployed.”

Hassan Badsha is 19 and earns 40 cents per hour because he is a specialized worker. “I’ve worked in the yards since I was six and I’ve seen many accidents — people losing their fingers or sometimes entire hands. Others have been crushed by the steel plates. In some companies, cranes with electromagnets were introduced, but these also reduce labor requirements and have led to layoffs.”

It’s the same all over the world, suggests Sawrav Barua, president of Songshoptaque. “We say that pollution has a price, and that those who pollute must pay, but the son of the representative of Chittagong, Abdul Kerim, has a naval shipyard. And if the owners are also politicians, who do you think they make the laws for?”

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