Tomasz Gudzowaty

Tomasz Gudzowaty was born in 1971. He obtained a degree in law at the University of Warsaw. Among his interests are humanistic photography and the classic form of the black and white photo-essay. He began with nature photography and then turned to social documentary and for the last few years he has been focussing on sports photography. He is particularly interested in non-commercial sports, and also those that are not present in the media, sports that are exotic, atypical or somehow outside the mainstream. His photos have been published in Max Magazine, L’Equipe, The Guardian, Newsweek, Forbes, Time and Photo and he is also the author of several albums. He is a multiple winner of the most important photography contests, among others the World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year, NPPA Best of Photojournalism. He cooperates with Focus Fotoagentur in Hamburg and Warsaw’s Yours Gallery.


It all started by accident. On a certain night in October 1960 a cyclone raging over the Gulf of Bengal grounded a large freighter on a beach near Chittagong – the second largest city and the biggest port in former Eastern Pakistan. Refloating the unit proved to be an impossible task so the owner from a distant country chose to forget his burdensome loss. The abandoned ship was dealt with by local poor. First its holds and storages were emptied, next were taken apart it mechanisms and equipment, and finally its structure and plating were cut to be sold element by element for scrap. This way the huge steel reef disappeared within in a few months without a trace. Nonetheless the idea for business lingered and, little by little, the beautiful beach was transformed into one of the world’s largest shipyards specializing in the disassembly of worn-out ships.

This story may just prove to be an industrial legend (a point supported by the multitude of versions rich in all kinds of details yet differing by dates and always omitting the name of the ill-fated freighter), something like the founding myth of this important industrial branch in Bangladesh – the most densely populated and one of the poorest countries in the world. Yet there may be some truth in it. Severe cyclones and floods happen too often here. Even without that the shipwrecks were plentiful on the coast in the result of wars with neighboring India. However reality is not governed by accidents but by the laws of economy. Roughly 45 000 ships navigate the world’s seas and oceans, most of them made of steel. A ship like that stops being useful after 20, 25 years, at the most. Not only because of physical wear, but also because of the freight’s insurance costs which suddenly rise after the unit has crossed the critical age. Until the 1960s scrap salvage was mainly the domain of American and European shipyards. It was a highly mechanized process requiring costly heavy equipment, yet not much profitable due to a low demand for the product - scrap steel. In the 1970s rising labor costs and increasingly rigorous environmental protection laws forced the business to migrate to countries on the rise, like Spain or Turkey, and later to Korea and Taiwan. Then again the shipyards there soon found more interesting activities. From the 1970s 95% of the 700 ships being decommissioned each year end their lives in India, the Bangladesh and Pakistan. The major share goes to the Indian shipyard in Alang, but Chittagong deals with the true giants even exceeding 100000 ton.

The business benefits from the abundance, actually a surplus of the dirt-cheap labor, an exceptionally liberal law, but also – and perhaps in the fist place – from the natural and economic environment. The technology is not even near the one that was used once in Europe. There are no docks, no concrete piers, no gigantic gantry cranes! The Chittagong shipyard complex extending from the Shitakundu police station to the city limits is hardly more than a dozen kilometers of flat and sandy beach divided into sections pompously called shipyards. Each such “shipyard” hosts several companies dealing with various aspects of the huge steel mass’s recycling into hard cash. Annually Chittagong dismantles about 70 ships – between 2 and 4 per shipyard. The scraping of a freighter takes several months and the possibilities of work under the open sky may be taken advantage of year-round.

A ship that is worn out but still in a running shape is worth between 110 and 150 dollars a ton so its actual price is usually calculated in millions and largely depends on its country of origin. For example, well maintained ships from European owners are prized higher than Russian ones. The acquisition of a ship moored in some Asian port is concluded far away from the coast of Bangladesh – in Singapore,  Dubai, London or in Hamburg. Then the ships sails on its last trip with a skeleton crew. About two weeks later it casts anchor on the international waters close to Chittagong. In the past there were few formalities, but now the importer must get hold of many permits and pay a duty. Then the Navy confiscates radio-navigation equipment. A special department issues a certificate that the ship is free of explosive gases (unfortunately this inspection is purely virtual).

The „docking” operation, called here „beaching”, is carried out at high tide. The best time is in summer on a full-moon, in the rainy season, when the tide is particularly important. The crew passes under the command of a local expert who takes the vessel at full speed towards he cost. A successful ship’s suicide – running it aground closest to the beach – means lower dismantling costs.

On the next day, after a Milad Mahfil religious ceremony, the buyers enter the ship. Each one is interested by a particular type of on-board equipment. Thus, there are specialist in electronics and in furniture, in engines and in kitchen furnishings, in food supplies and in fuels. All that can be removed shall be auctioned, taken out and dispatched to the local market. Then “cleaning” will begin, preceded by another (again mostly virtual) inspection by the safety board. It consists in the cutting of holes in the hull to free volatile substances and to let in tide water to rinse the ship’s interior. The flame of a torch entering in contact with the vapors from fuels and lubricants could have catastrophic consequences. The effect that this rinsing has on the coastal water’s fauna and flora needs not be explained.

Now a swarm of workers undertakes to take apart manually fragments of the hull’s plating, to pull out cables, to extract rivets. Metal elements are carried out on human shoulders to the beach where they are sorted and sent off to rolling mills, foundries and steelworks. Most steel – particularly the more valuable one (mainly from chains and propeller shaft) – is recovered and recycled into i.e. construction steel. The Chittagong beach is the sole source of raw materials for the metallurgical industry of Bangladesh – a country devoid of natural resources. Recycling practically concerns 100% of the ship’s mass. If it was not for the “petty” ecological matters, the Eastern Bengal shipyards would merit the praise of Greenpeace activists instead of their protests.

The shipyards’ owners are Chittagong businessmen, often linked to the steel industry. They seldom visit the beach in person, entrusting direct management to hired specialists. A separate category are “labor providers”. They have no ties with any particular shipyard and act as freelance businessman, trying to secure a concession for the dismantling of an entire ship or its fragment for a lump sum agreed in advance and including both their own profits and labor costs. With the help of “their” staff they track work - ships awaiting to be scraped. In this way all the workers remain anonymous to the shipyard. Actually, not even the “provider” establishes with them any direct agreement, leaving this chore to the foremen. For this reason it is difficult to keep any credible statistics, nor even give precisely the total number of workers employed, estimated to be anywhere between 25 and 100 thousand.

Yet steady jobs await security guards. Each shipyard is surrounded by a fence surmounted by barbed wire and it is closely protected both against thieves and inquisitive journalists. The security branch maintains excessively close relations with the criminal world. Security guards regularly extract protection money from workers and equally turn against their own employers, blocking the access road and buying back raw materials at prices they dictate. However, it is difficult to do without these “Praetorians”, although dangerous but interested in the survival of this business and maintaining discipline among the workers while regular gangs of thieves roam outside.

Administrative employees have full-time jobs. All the others – and workers above all – are remunerated on a daily basis – on the average 1.2 dollars for a minimum of 8 hours of labor. The majority comes from the poorest, northern part of the country. Workers cutting metal with welding torches are the aristocracy. Being a qualified work force, they are entitled to higher wages but they fall more often victims of accidents. Other specialized groups include workers dismantling on-board equipment, porters hauling cut out elements to dry land, men emptying the ship from leftover fuels, workers removing mud and those loading scrap on trucks.

Each group is recruited by a foreman, acting in fact as a personnel manager. Certain brigades – particularly loaders – are directly managed by a coordinator who is responsible to the foreman – the maji. A maji lives with the workers under his responsibility, which include social and medical matters. And there are also the singers needed when hauling large masses. Their rhythmical wail helps joining the efforts of the muscles of twenty and some human pairs.
Contrary to the shipyards’ owners, the workers do not organize in trade unions (potential leaders are eliminated – sometimes in the gruesome sense of this word). They live at the site of the shipyard, in barracks sometimes lacking water and electricity, but at least ensuring a certain safety. They work without protective clothing, carry loads exceeding all norms, look at the flame of an acetylene torch without dark filter lenses and breathe asbestos dust. In the best of cases they can work like this for several years – without any compensation for lost health and without the right to a retirement pension. Officially, accidents are relatively few (except for large explosions described by the press). In reality there must be hundreds of them. Despite this, the Chittagong shipyard workers endure their fate with surprising dignity and calm. Often entire families live off their work. Either they are happy with what they have, or they have nothing.

Even though the golden years of this business belong to the past, the ship wrecking industry in the Gulf of Bengal is still thriving considering the general economic crisis. Steel prices go up and on the local market, the Chittagong shipyards are practically monopolists. The pressure exerted by international organizations may coerce the authorities into tightening environmental and labor regulations, but the same authorities are also aware of the fact that hundreds of thousands of its citizens live directly or indirectly off the Shitakundu beach. Sometimes at the brink of existence, but they do live. And the world needs them to get rid of dying ships somehow. Even by unloading this problem on the shoulders of the Chittagong workers.

(Tomasz Lewandowski)