The Ship-breakers

1

Shuel is eighteen years old, in a checked shirt hanging loose over his trousers, and with the trusting smile of a child to whom nobody has ever done any harm. Shuel and I are sunk up to our ankles in some sort of gunk consisting of mud, crude oil, organic waste, sawdust, splinters, and scraps of asbestos. We’re walking along the deck of a huge ship, which has several dozen people buzzing around it with files, hammers, crowbars, and other basic tools. The sun is just about to set and the sea is getting choppier, but Shuel is absolutely determined to find out about life in Poland.

“Tell me, brother, how much does a cutter earn in your country, for cutting up ships?” he asks. So I explain that there aren’t any ship-breaking yards in Poland, and that we haven’t got any beaches on the Baltic coast with dozens of 400-ton monsters standing side by side; we have no cranes to tow them, no acetylene torches to cut them, and no trucks to distribute the resulting scrap metal around the country.

“Aha,” says Shuel, nodding, as if all that was clear to him. But it isn’t, because after a pause he asks: “In that case how much does the foreman in charge of the cutters earn?”

So once again I patiently explain that there’s no job of that kind in Poland either. That once upon a time we produced ships, and we used to have a pretty big fleet, but all that’s history now. And that it’s more cost-effective to have them cut up in India or Bangladesh. Out of politeness I don’t mention that in Poland it wouldn’t be worth it—they’d have to pay the people too much, and for working with asbestos Brussels would slap penalty after penalty on us.

“Aha,” says Shuel, not put off, scratching his head. “So in that case how much does a porter earn? The man who carries the cut-up ship to the trucks?”

“Shuel, in my country WE DO NOT BREAK SHIPS!” I say in the plainest English I can muster. But the look on Shuel’s face doesn’t change in the slightest. He grew up right next to this shipyard. His father is an imam at the mosque which the cutters and porters attend. In his world there are no countries where they don’t break ships. His horizon doesn’t stretch as far as such places, and when I refuse to answer his questions he thinks I’m deceiving him. He can’t understand why, because he’s just been telling me how much the people who do those jobs earn here. He works as one of the porters who jointly carry half-ton sheets of metal on their backs, and gets $120 per month. The foreman gets over $200. “Is it so hard to say how much they earn in Poland?” Shuel must be thinking. He started working at the shipyard two years ago, to earn the money for his brother’s schooling. “I’m the oldest sibling. I wanted to go and work in Dubai—my uncle works in a supermarket there—but we didn’t have the money for a ticket,” he says, as if making an excuse.

His brother is going to school now, and Shuel hopes that in two years’ time he’ll be able to drop his job at the shipyard. What are his dreams? To go abroad—to Europe, America, or the United Arab Emirates, it’s all the same to him, as long as he can get as far away as possible from Bangladesh, where his family lives in poverty. That’s why he keeps questioning me about Poland and Polish wages. And I’m sure that’s why he’s annoyed with me for not telling him how much we earn for cutting up ships.

But Shuel is the son of the village imam, and his father has taught him to be polite. He can’t accuse me of lying. He can’t let me know that he doesn’t believe me. So he fixes his almond-shaped eyes on me and makes one last attempt to get the crucial information out of me: “So tell me, brother, how many months does it take you people to cut up a single ship?”

I don’t know what to say. Here in Chittagong, they cut up ships the size of tower blocks in three, or at most four months.

 

2

Chittagong, the second largest city in Bangladesh, is a two-million-strong living fresco, the main features of which are rickshaws, bad architecture, bazaars, and the country’s most important mosques, where the imams who were the first to bring Islam here are buried. At the grave of the most significant of them all, Bayazid Bostami, pilgrims feed bread to turtles which—so they believe—are evil genies changed into animals as a punishment. Hinduism merges with Islam here in a completely imperceptible way. The women wrap themselves in headscarves which look identical in both religions. Bayazid’s temple looks as if it could just as well serve the one as the other. Right behind it is the start of the Hindu district.

As in all of Bangladesh, there are vast numbers of people—in a country half the size of Poland there are more than 150 million of them. They shout, honk their horns, and ring their bicycle bells. They buy, sell, pray, make tea (with an obligatory teaspoonful of sweetened condensed milk), tuck into chicken and rice, squabble, make up again, and look for jobs— finding work is a big problem here.

Anyone who reads in the guidebook that Chittagong is the most modern city in Bangladesh will immediately fear for the less modern ones. On my first night there I went for a walk around my four-star hotel. Suddenly I was shocked to find myself in the middle of a screaming crowd of people who were chasing a man, shaking their fists at him. The local barber forcibly dragged me into his little shop. “It could be dangerous,” he said, frowning, and called a rickshaw, which took me back to my hotel by a circuitous route.

Next morning, Shahdat, the man who was to take me to the wrecking yards, came to fetch me. The world’s biggest complex of these enterprises is situated on the edge of Chittagong, where they break up ships from every continent. Almost a hundred kilometers of the coast of the Bay of Bengal is occupied by shipyard after shipyard, where, with the help of the simplest tools these giants are disassembled, right down to the smallest screw.

Shahdat is a head shorter than me, with hair from one side of his head combed over a bald patch, and for our meeting he has put on a gray suit. “I should warn you that it won’t be easy,” he says right at the start. “Once upon a time you could go inside the shipyards with no problem. But these days there can be a veeery big problem,” he says worriedly, and his nostalgia for the old days, when you could enter the shipyards at the drop of a hat, seems all the greater.

Not without reason. They really do refuse to let us enter the first shipyard. It’s the same story at the second one. In his efforts to find the third, our driver loses his way for a while among wooden barracks housing a canteen, a barber’s shop, a stall selling household chemicals, and several people selling jackfruit—which is shaped like a huge, green spiky hedgehog, and which the Bengalis regard as a symbol of their country, alongside the tiger.

Shahdat’s hands are sweating as he nervously explains that he knows plenty of shipyard owners in person, but that journalists from the West write nasty things about the shipyards, and the government takes great care of Bangladesh’s good name in the world outside. The owners don’t want to let anybody in, because any mention of poor conditions at their shipyards will annoy the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed.

“All the trouble started when the Indians saw that ship-breaking is good business,” Shahdat complains. “We were the first to have that idea. But now they have shipyards in India too, which break all the rules in the book. But they send the journalists to ours. All to divert attention from themselves.”

At the third shipyard Shahdat disappears for an extremely long time. It doesn’t look promising. The security guard is keeping a close eye on me, and won’t even let me poke my nose out of the car. I can only see a ship in the distance that looks six storeys high and the shadow of a man climbing up a gangway. And although I’m just underneath a great big noticeboard, probably hung up here for all those nasty journalists from the West, which declares that all the workers here are equipped with hard hats and protective footwear, I’m pretty much certain the shadow climbing up the ship is not wearing a hard hat.

Anyway, when Shahdat comes back with a document giving the consent of the shipyard owner himself, it turns out that of several hundred workers in the entire shipyard, only three have any kind of protective gear. I ask the shift manager—a thirty-year-old in a baseball cap advertising a second-rate American university—about it. The manager is disgusted by my question.

“We do everything possible to prevent accidents,” he says, to brush me off. “But sometimes they can’t be avoided. Accidents can happen at any plant. And anyway, if there’s an accident here, a hard hat won’t help,” he goes on, shrugging. I’m looking at some pieces of a hull, rammed into the beach. At a glance, each one weighs at least ten tons. The manager is right—from this perspective a hard hat is just laughable.

“So do you have a lot of accidents?” I try to probe further. But the manager is not free to answer that sort of question. So he gives a set response, which means more or less that nothing in the world depends on man, because everything depends on Allah.

Only a few days later, once I’ve managed to earn myself the reputation of a harmless loon who likes watching ships being smashed apart, can I calmly chat with the workers. It is from them that I discover that no month passes without something happening at the shipyard. Either a piece of metal falls on someone’s head, or a hand gets dragged into a pulley, or one of the porters breaks a bone.

“They usually snap here,” says Biplop, one of the porters, pointing through his jeans at his thigh. “We carry very heavy things,” he continues, pointing at a huge piece of steel ripped off a ship. “It’s rare for anyone to last more than five years,” he says in a wistful tone. All the more wistful for the fact that he has been working here for four years now, and is just waiting for his thigh bone to crack and effectively immobilize him. He carries these weights in plastic slip-on shoes; he claims he’s most comfortable like that. Although he’s just over forty, he’s completely bald. Not long ago his teeth started to fall out; he has already lost three.

He only cheers up at the memory of his old life.

“I used to have a clothes shop. We even did trade with the Chinese. Good clothes, from a tailor’s shop, which they sell to America. Unfortunately my partner ran off with the money, and left me with the debts. I have a wife and two children; nobody wanted to employ me, so I’m working here.”

Work at the breaking yards is extremely tough. But in Bangladesh, where unemployment is at almost forty percent, nobody complains, especially as the shipyards pay better than other employers. And on top of that their owners guarantee benefits: medical care and a cash payment in case of accidental death. For the most tenacious workers they even pay for a pilgrimage to Mecca.

But Mecca is far from Biplop’s thoughts. He would have to have worked at the shipyard for at least ten years. “I got this job through knowing the right people,” he explains. “My father went to school with one of the owners. He called him when I had no other option. My wife and children stayed behind at Cox’s Bazar, because that’s where we usually live, and I’m here. I miss them very much, but luckily I can go and see them once a month.”

 

3

Although the shipyard is only twenty kilometers away, the drive there takes over an hour.

First you have to push your way through the city center, where everyone is hooting and shouting at each other, where the cars overtake in banks of three, four or even five vehicles, and where the sides of the buses are so worn out that they have holes in them. Apparently only one in ten Bengali drivers has a license. I think that must be true when I see them on the road.

Then you drive for a while along an arterial road toward Dhaka, the capital, past shops where you can buy ship fittings: gangways, life jackets and lifebuoys, rudders, lamps, launches, furniture, pots and plates. The owner of one of these shops asks where I am from, and then fetches a compass made in Poland and some photo albums of Gdańsk, which must have been left behind on one of the ships that had come here to be broken up.

The closer you get to the shipyard, the bigger the queue of trucks. The drivers often spend all day waiting in line to get into the shipyard. Garishly decorated with pictures of Islamic and Hindu deities, they create an unusual parade of colors. The drivers brew themselves tea as they squat around their vehicles.

Finally there are the actual shipyards. You only have to drive down a side street to see a hull towering over the neighborhood, with tiny, antlike figures moving about on it. The whole thing is coated in black streaks of crude oil, which here and there someone has set on fire.

Children from the fishing village adjoining the shipyard are playing soccer on a heap of rubbish extracted from a ship. They look as if they’re kicking that ball around against the background of some totally unheralded Armageddon.

 

4

Work at the shipyard begins shortly before eight a.m. “We eat a good breakfast, usually chicken and rice, and we can work,” says cutter’s assistant Biraj, laughing. “But you can’t eat too much, or you’ll get overweight, and in our work you’ve got to have quick reflexes.”

Biraj’s boss is cutting large pieces of ships into smaller ones, of a size that will fit on the trucks. Meanwhile Biraj is standing over him with a parasol so his boss won’t get sunburned. Sometimes the boss teaches him how to use the tools.

“If something happens to him, I’ll already be trained,” explains Biraj. I can’t help thinking that somewhere, deep down, perhaps without even realizing it, he is just waiting for that moment. But it’s hard to hold it against him; a cutter earns fifty dollars more than his assistant, and fifty dollars is a great deal of money.

Both of them are from the same village on the border of Bangladesh and Burma. Both are from the Chakma people, who are apparently famous for their valor and tenacity. It is only a two-hour journey from Chittagong to Bandarban, capital of the Bangladeshi indigenous peoples.

But Biraj and his boss have not been there for over a year. “I haven’t got a wife or children,” laughs Biraj. “The shipyard is my entire life. I’m saving up, and maybe one day I’ll be able to afford a wife. For the time being I do my best not to think about it. What about my boss? He’s already got five children, as well as a sister whose husband was killed in a car crash, and aging parents. He has to support all of them on his own. That’s why every day at work is very important to him, and he goes home very, very rarely.”

 

5

A new ship comes in on average once a month. The bosses go to special auctions, usually held in Malaysia or Japan. The price depends on the tonnage and on the quality of the metals from which the ship is constructed.

At a later point the captain of the ship has to perform a maneuver they don’t teach at any maritime academy: to sail it as far into the shore as possible. All the workers stand out on the beach to watch. The further inland the captain brings it, the bigger the cheers he gets—the shipyard workers will have to carry every last kilogram of those 400 or 500 tons of metal on their own heads and backs. The closer to the beach he manages to position the ship, the easier it will be for them.

Some captains understand this perfectly. But there are others who can’t make themselves force the ship inland at speed. Then these giants get stuck in the shallows. To reach the furthest ones, the shipyard workers have to walk almost a kilometer, sinking half way up their calves in sand.

I’m told all this by the manager, the one in the baseball cap with the name of an American university on it. After a week of my visits his initial lack of trust has evaporated, and now he’s proud to have a pal from abroad. He invites me to join him for dinner, along with the imam from the shipyard mosque and one of the owner’s sons.

We’re sitting at a desk taken from a warship, which serves as a table. There are Cyrillic letters on our plates. Even the clock on the wall has been removed from some foreign ship. The imam rarely comes into contact with people of other faiths, so he tries questioning me about how Christians find it possible to believe in Jesus’s divinity. I don’t think he understands my woolly explanations, but whatever I say, he twirls his henna-tinted beard and softly repeats: “Impossible . . . impossible . . . ”

Only the owner’s son seems out of place. He’s from a new generation: educated in America, he speaks excellent English and is extremely well dressed. He invites me outside for a cigarette, and as we’re smoking, he talks about his father’s workers with a range of mild disdain and total contempt.

“They’re simple people, you must forgive the questions about religion,” he says.

“There’s nothing to forgive,” I say, shrugging. “They’re just curious.”

But the owner’s son takes a tough stance: “A civilized person doesn’t ask that sort of question,” he says. I feel as if for the moment he has carried us away from the Bangladeshi ship-breaking yard to an English club for rich young snobs.

 

6

At breakfast in the hotel restaurant, the waiter tells me there’s a man living in his home village who used to work at a shipyard, but he lost both hands and had to go home.

“He had bad luck,” says the waiter. “His brother was killed, and the family got a lot of money from the shipyard owner. But he didn’t get a penny. The owner decided that the accident was his fault, and didn’t give him anything,” he adds.

“What’s happening to him?” I ask.

“I don’t know. There are some organizations helping him, and his wife does sewing and laundry. In Bangladesh it’s very shameful for a man to be unable to support his own family. So that man never leaves the house at all. Nobody has seen him for more than two years,” says the waiter, and a sort of satisfaction comes through in his voice, at the thought that this fate was destined for somebody else; that although he may earn less as a waiter, nothing’s going to cut off his hands.

© Witold Szabłowski. First published in Continents, December 2013. English translation © 2014 by Antonia-Lloyd Jones. By arrangement with Agora SA, Warsaw. All rights reserved.

This text was written to accompany a set of documentary photographs of the Bangladeshi ship-breakers by Tomasz Gudzowaty in a special English-language issue of Continents, available as an app for iPhone and iPad.