This photo-essay by Robert Bailey and the accompanying text by Naeem Mohaiemen is a long time coming. One delay or another, caused by some mystical external or internal force, prevented me from posting this to Tiffinbox back in August 2006. [Robert and Naeem – Sorry!]
Robert Bailey is a freelance documentary and commercial photographer living in New York City. His assignments have taken him to locations across the United States, Europe, South America, and Asia. He has photographed extensively in Bangladesh, India , Nepal, and Pakistan and his work has been exhibited in both solo and group shows across the United States. His style of photography has led him to clients such as Unicef, Merck, City Harvest, and United Airlines. Robert?s work has been featured on the Discovery Channel, Today Show, NBC NIghtly News, and at the Sundance Film Festival. He has lectured abroad and also here in New York at the International Center of Photography and the School of Visual Arts. Robert will be teaching photography this fall semester at Ohio Northern University.
Naeem Mohaiemen is a filmmaker and media activist. He is director of VISIBLE COLLECTIVE, an artist-activist collective that works on film-art interventions on migrant impulses, hyphenated identities and post 9/11 security panic. Project excerpts have shown widely, including the 2006 Whitney Biennial. His film on impact of image politics on struggles inside political Islam, MUSLIMS OR HERETICS, screened at the British House of Lords. His essays include the forthcoming “Hip Hop’s Islamic Connection” (Sound Unbound, MIT Press, DJ Spooky ed.), ?Invisible Migrants? (Men of the Global South, Zed Books, Adam Jones ed.), “Shiraj Sikder: Terrorists, Guerillas or Icons” (Sarai Reader, RAQS Collective ed.), and “Why Mahmud Can’t Be a Pilot” (Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, Matt Bernstein ed.)
Please click the link below to read Naeem’s story about this enigmatic industry.
In 1992, The Economist leaked a memo by World Bank chief economist Lawrence Summers, which discussed the economic rationale for “encouraging more migration of dirty industries” to Less Developed Countries (LDC):
The measurements of the costs of health-impairing pollution depend on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view, a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages.
The report immediately provoked outrage from environmental groups and the developing countries. Brazil’s Secretary of Environment, Jose Lutzenburger, called it an example of “unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and arrogant ignorance” of economists. Summers quickly disavowed the memo, explaining that the remarks were meant to be an “ironic aside” to illustrate that free trade would not necessarily lead to environmental improvements for LDCs.
Whatever the memo’s provenance and intention, Summers’ prescriptions have now been implemented – not directly by the Bank, but through the logic of global markets. A prime example is the shipbreaking industry, which has essentially migrated from the Northern countries to Southasia – 90 percent of the world’s ships are now dismantled in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.
The statistics are staggering in their long-term implications. There are approximately 45,000 ships in the world’s seawaters. About 700 of these become obsolete every year and need disposal. Over the next few decades, the number that will need to be decommissioned will increase dramatically, due to new regulations. A majority of ships are built in South Korea and China, filling orders placed by Japan, the UK, the US, Norway, Singapore and Denmark. Until the 1970s, shipbreaking was done in the countries of origin, using heavy machinery on salvage decks. But increasing environmental regulations and labour costs resulted in the transfer of this work – first to Korea and Taiwan, and then to Southasia. Two decades ago, 79 countries engaged in some form of ship-recycling activity. Today, most of that work is completed here. Shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh alone dismantle about 90 giant ships every year, mostly oil tankers.
There is little doubt that this is risky work, and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in particular has extensively documented the industry’s dangers. The most obvious risk is from industrial accidents, especially explosions from leftover gas and fumes. Even if a ship is gas-free, the regular use of torches, saws and grinders is very risky, especially because many workers do not have safety equipment. More hotly debated is the level of toxins inside the ships. According to the ILO, material typically released during ship-scrapping includes asbestos, lead, arsenic, chromates and mercury. The shipping lines refuse to acknowledge this, however, for fear of being held in violation of the 1992 Basel convention, which banned the export of toxins.
An accidental industry
Shipbreaking came to Bangladesh via a strange set of circumstances – first a cyclone, and then a civil war. The Bay of Bengal is a particularly deep approach, and the differential between the high and low tides along the Bangladesh coast is over six metres. This geological advantage – which makes it possible to bring giant ships as close as possible to the shoreline – came to the attention of locals after a 1965 cyclone beached a giant cargo ship on the Chittagong shore. In a country starved for raw materials, the local demand for steel was too high for the stranded ship to remain a mere curiosity. A few days after the accident, local businessmen started to tear the vessel apart. Within a short period, hundreds of people had stripped bare the entire structure. The accident had caused the loss of a good ship but offered up a bounty of free steel and other recyclable materials.
This would-be industry stayed dormant until the 1971 War of Independence. Among the numerous crises for newly independent Bangladesh were the ships, crippled by wartime attacks, blocking Chittagong Port. Hastily arranging a makeshift auction, the government sold two of these ships to the only bidder, businessman Shirazul Chowdhury. Although the new socialist government was in the process of nationalising all businesses, shipbreaking was not considered an industry and was free from intervention.
The methods used by Chowdhury to break apart these two ships were labour-intensive and low-tech, and they set the template for the future industry. Hundreds of workers climbed aboard the hull and took apart steel plates by hammering out rivets one-by-one – a process that would take weeks to pry out just one plate. In order to bring sections of the ship further inland, the workers jerry-rigged crude mechanical pulleys powered by hundreds of men. Today, blowtorches and other cutting equipment are more common, but every ship that comes to the Chittagong yards is still taken apart in a process that has changed little in over three decades.
India’s troubles begin
Today, in order to generate jobs and attract industry, developing countries compete against each other to offer the lowest wages and least regulations. When labour and environment activists target individual offenders, other countries rush in to lure away that business. Bangladesh lost many of its clients in the garment industry after a series of media exposés on its sweatshops. Ironically, the country gained traction in shipbreaking precisely because activists were targeting the competition in India.
In 1997, a series of investigative reports made India’s massive Alang yards in Gujarat a symbol of the ‘dirty ships’ industry. This began with an investigation by a US newspaper into the large number of military vessels that were abandoned on the Baltimore docks. These ships were government-owned vessels that could not be sent overseas for scrapping because of a US ban on exporting PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), an organic pollutant found in hydraulic and electrical systems. Because the cost of dismantling the ships was prohibitive, the US firms that had been given the job had either gone bankrupt or abandoned the work. The reporters realised that commercial vessels carried similar toxins, but were not subject to the export ban. Eventually, the reporters landed at Alang, which at the time was scrapping more than half of the world’s ships.
After the reporting team won a Pulitzer Prize, the story gained additional momentum due to European interest. In 1998, Greenpeace published its own report on Alang, making the explosive claim that there were approximately 365 deaths a year from shipbreaking accidents, resulting in the slogan: “Every day one ship, every day one dead.” Greenpeace’s campaign eventually led to intervention at the highest policy levels.
Shipbreaking received fiery denunciations by officials in the US and Netherlands, and was inserted into the agenda of the European Union and the International Maritime Organisation. The Alang yards were now under intense pressure to reform their operations. One key step was the requirement that all ships provide a ‘gas-free certificate’. In response, ship owners looked for countries with fewer requirements, resulting in more work for Bangladesh. Instead of an increase in global standards, Southasia saw a regional version of the race to the bottom.
In its rush to enter world markets, Bangladesh has had a complicated history, both as a source of cheap labour and as a dumping ground for unregulated products. Past skirmishes between Bangladesh and external players involved testing of ‘RU-486’ abortion drugs, the herbal remedy Gripe Water, toxic milk imports from Russia, contaminated fertiliser from the US, and the arsenic-poisoning crisis linked to deep-water tubewells built by donor agencies. Activism around these issues tends to have a strident tone, but when it comes to cases with a linkage to industrialisation and trade, a more delicate dance is at play. Then the fear is that too much human rights critiquing may result in the country losing that business. The experience of the garments trade, where a global campaign resulted in the departure of many foreign buyers, is a perpetual spectre. There is also a common belief that a period of ‘dirty industrialisation’ is essential for long-term development. Because shipbreaking is dangerous primarily to those employed by the yards, there is also little spillage into the consumer space that could create mass awareness of the issue.
Shipbreaking remains a highly unregulated business in Bangladesh. Because it directly and indirectly employs almost 300,000 people, and provides 80 percent of the country’s steel needs, agencies are loath to ‘tamper with success’. Recently, the Chittagong yards were forced out of the shadows because of a series of legal actions. Armed with Greenpeace’s list of 50 ships that were bound for scrapping, environmental activists started filing lawsuits against the Bangladesh government. Faced with a court order and intense media coverage, the government banned three ships from entering the country, including the controversial asbestos-laden SS Norway, which had been docked in Malaysian waters looking for a destination. In an illustration of the techniques the industry uses to avoid scrutiny, the ship even changed its name to Blue Lady in the middle of court proceedings. The Dhaka government’s action marked a defeat for the Bangladeshi shipbreaker who had purchased the vessel for USD 13 million. The ship was then sent to India after Bangladesh’s rejection, where the Supreme Court issued a ruling allowing the ship to enter, although NGO groups have vowed to block its dismantling. During the same period, French President Jacques Chirac ordered another asbestos-lined ship, SS Clemenceau, to return from India after widespread protests.
Although NGO groups gained these significant victories this year, there are tactical limits to interventions through individual ship-chasing. Ship ownership and registration operates through a complex system of FOC (Flags Of Convenience, often of tax havens like the Bahamas) through which half of the world’s ships are registered. This makes it difficult to hold any government accountable for a particular ‘dirty’ ship. As a result, the pressure for reform has always been on the destination countries.
Iconic images and brutal realities
Many in Bangladesh are watching the debate over toxic ships with trepidation, fearing that activists will deprive them of a growing industry and critical revenue. Industrialists point to strong local demand for steel and claim that, without shipbreaking, industrial development will shrink. The business sector exerts pressure to maintain the status quo, including keeping out trade unions. To counter the harsh reputation of the yards, others portray the inventiveness, resilience and pride displayed by many of the shipbreakers. Because every part of the ship, down to toilet fixtures, is recycled and sold on the local market, supporters even call it a ‘100 percent green industry’, and urge activists not to target the trade.
In recent media work around this issue, an implicit position has emerged that counter-balances the activist platform. Journalist Roland Buerk’s book Breaking Ships, the first in-depth look at the Chittagong yards, spends most of its pages documenting the work process in minute detail – much less attention is paid to the environmental issues. But one of Buerk’s own photographs, showing a young worker covered in a mysterious fluorescent substance, indicates what may be missing in his text. Considering photography’s complicated history as a tool of icon building, images around this issue do need interrogation (consider the mythical photos by Alexander Rodchenko of the Soviet-era Baltic Canal, and by the US Farm Security of the American Dustbowl). Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado, whose haunting photographs first brought attention to the Chittagong yards, became, in philosopher Susan Sontag’s words, “the principal target of a new campaign against the inauthenticity of the beautiful”. Although Robert Bailey’s photographs that accompany this essay do not carry any mythologising intent, there can always be audiences that use these and other images to rebuke activists who want to curb dangerous labour.
When the Indian yards were being investigated, one resident said to journalist William Langewiesche: “The question I want to ask the environmentalists is if you should want to die first of starvation or pollution.” It is a transparently inadequate binary, but one that is used to stymie reform conversations. New theoretical frameworks and practical solutions must be developed through debates on development, free markets and globalisation. The Southasian economies desperately need new industries, but the model of development-at-any-price will render them vulnerable to health pandemics and labour disasters.
Developed countries need to take the primary steps: by guaranteeing that ships are not sent with toxic content, by forcing FOC tax havens to abide by international regulatory frameworks, and by enforcing the Basel ban on export of toxic waste. In the shipbreaking countries, calls for unionisation and safety standards have been resisted with that over-used excuse of ‘staying competitive’. Activists need to continue pushing for reforms that will create sustainable development. The challenge is to keep competitive industries like shipbreaking in Bangladesh, while making them truly ‘100 percent green’.