Bangladesh – Center of the Ship Breaking Industry

As dawn breaks on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, a surreal scene unfolds: thousands of workers stream down to the rusted hulks of beached ships, some of them huge oil tankers. Soon the sounds of hammering and metal cutting can be heard as sparks from welding torches float through the air like fireflies.

This is ship breaking, and it means pretty much what it sounds like. Sooner or later, every ship that sails the sea is going to make its last voyage, and the odds are that final journey will be to one of the ship breaking centers on the coast of India or Bangladesh. Why Bangladesh? The answer owes as much to blind luck than anything else. In 1960, the Bay of Bengal was struck by a cyclone as it often has through history. This storm was especially destructive, leaving thousands dead and ten times that homeless. When the winds and rain receded at last, an odd “gift” was left for the survivors – an enormous beached ship. The ship’s owners somewhere overseas abandoned the wreck and local metalworkers began to scrounge it for scrap metal and material. It was many years before the remains of the vessel were completely scavenged, but by that time new metal recycling shops had sprung up and a small army of workers eagerly looked out to sea for their next job.

Enterprising entrepreneurs soon signed contracts with ship owners to buy their derelict or decommissioned ships, which were either towed to Bangladesh’s beaches or run up onto the sands under their remaining power. A large supporting infrastructure grew up, employing workers who came from all over Bangladesh seeking steady work and pay to support their families. The work is difficult, even dangerous, but Bangladesh is a poor country and ship breaking is steady work that knows no off-season, unlike farming. The salvaged metal from the ships is melted down at mills and recycled into construction materials. In fact, a significant proportion of new building construction in Bangladesh’s cities and towns uses metal cut from the ships that sailed the oceans of the world!