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Each year hundreds of old tankers, ferries and cargo ships from around the world are beached on the mud flats of southeastern Bangladesh, where men armed with cutters and hammers dismantle them for scrap metal, salvaging what they can.
Czech photographer Jana Asenbrennerova visited Chittagong’s ship-breaking yards in summer 2010 to document what life was like for the people who work there. She was taken back by the scale of the place.
“I felt swallowed by the massive pieces of ships that surrounded me,” she says. “The multitude of noises, many machines running at the same time, men yelling commands to each other.”
Due to skepticism toward the media and ongoing battles with environmentalists, Asenbrennerova says the atmosphere was tense when she arrived. She was only able to gain access with the help of a local journalist.
At first she was told she only had two hours, but she ended up spending half the day there. Hauling her equipment through the mud and onto the ships, she experienced the challenges workers face firsthand.
“The workers look like little ants next to these gigantic ships,” Asenbrennerova says. “And [they are] just as vulnerable.”
Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are responsible for recycling up to 80% of the world’s out-of-service ships, according to the NGO Shipbreaking Platform. Labor and environmental laws are not strictly upheld in the developing countries, leading to severe pollution and dangerous working conditions.
The ship breakers often handle toxic waste without protective gear or safety equipment, and accidents are common. As the ships are taken apart, heavy metals contaminate the land, oil leaks into the ocean, and asbestos is released into the air.
But the industry is seen as a key contributor to Bangladesh’s overall economy, providing more than half its steel supply and employing thousands of its poorest people.
“To be without a job, letting their families go hungry, represents a bigger threat to these men than working in an environment that can eventually lead to health issues or early death,” Asenbrennerova says.