Sunday 17 April 2022

"We slowly lose our hearing because of the noise" - Stories from Bangladesh

Much has been written about Chittagong's notorious ship-breaking yards. Their appalling safety record and working conditions have been the subject of numerous documentaries. The owners, not welcoming this kind of exposure, no longer admit visitors. Dhaka's Karaniganj ship-repair yard is less well-known and attracts little media attention. This may be why I was able to enter unchallenged, look around, take photographs and talk to the workers, despite the presence of several managerial staff. No-one seemed perturbed by my being there, and there were no problems with photography. One of the supervisors even asked me to take his portrait.

I noticed the noise from the yard well before I reached the gate. Hundreds of small hammers chip away the rust from the ships' sides, releasing toxic particles into the air and damaging the workers' hearing. Other hazards include chemical fumes and extreme heat. Some of the men wore hard hats but most  worked without protective gear. 

I asked some of the men (I saw only male workers here, unlike at Mirpur)  about the lack of safety equipment and the impact of the work on their health. Ripon, aged 32 and a Dhaka native, said "When I first came here I had a headache every day. I'm used to it now and I don't get them anymore, but we slowly lose our hearing because of the noise". Shahin, a welder, aged 30, said "I have goggles and a mask but I can't wear them. It's too hot and it gets difficult to see". Like several others, he also reported having respiratory problems and headaches. Shahin had dreams of a better life. "I wanted to work in Singapore" he said. "An employment broker asked for $4,000 to find me a job there. I took a course in welding and then borrowed the whole amount to pay him, but he disappeared with the money and now I have a debt. I have a wife and two small children and life is very difficult". 

Many Bangladeshis work overseas and send money back to their family to pay off debts, to improve their living conditions, or to educate their children. Unfortunately stories like Shahin's are not unusual including in the UK. Last year the British Government published a warning about employment scams that target Bangladeshi nationals.

Back in Karaniganj, the ships are drawn up onto the muddy banks of the heavily polluted, and in places, foul-smelling Buriganga river. A few hundred metres from the water, behind the ships, there are small houses where many of the workers and their families live. It is here that new propellers are made. Visitors venturing this far need to tread very carefully as they pass red hot metal and open fires, trying not to breathe in the steam, smoke and sulphurous air, while avoiding areas of soft, sinking ground. None of this seems to trouble the workers or the children, or the goats and dogs that live, play and wander around in this area.

Some of those children are themselves employed here. One 18 year old painter told me he started work in the shipyard when he was 12. He was one of very few wearing some kind of protection - a thin scarf covering his mouth and nose. He removed it and asked me to take his picture. There are reports of children as young as five or six carrying out some of the tasks but I did not see this when I visited.  

Amidst the mud, noise and noxious fumes there are occasional scenes of beauty. I saw a young man climb down from a ship, his movements delicate and precise, like those of a dancer. As he descended he made shadows and shapes on the freshly painted, vivid red ship. He swung and stepped from one narrow wooden platform to another, manoeuvring by the rope used to secure the wood to the ship. Elsewhere groups of three or four men stood on similar structures, removing paint or adding an extra coat. Like their workmates, they make about $5 per day. A little further on, water poured from the rear of one of the ships. A labourer waiting close-by, appeared to be standing under the water - taking a shower fully clothed. But this was a visual trick and no water touched him.

A couple of hours in the shipyard was enough for me. It was hot, my head ached, my eyes were itchy and I'd pulled my scarf up over my nose and mouth to block the dust and fumes. Just before leaving, I was offered a drink at a small tea stall near the exit. I joined a group of workers, taking a break, drinking chai and eating snacks to give themselves a little more energy to complete their shift. They wanted to know my name, where I am from and what I was doing there. I don't speak Bangla but was able to use some of my limited knowledge of Hindi, which surprised and amused those who understood it. Many of them were not from Dhaka but had moved there to find work. Most of them had left school aged 10 or 12. They joked with each other and we spoke about football, films and family before they went back to work and I went back back to my hotel. 

You might also like "There is no work without hard work"  or The Rickshaw Woman of Kamalpur from the Stories of Bangladesh series.

You can see more pictures from my Bangladesh trip here

Follow me on instagram at @adrianyekkes

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