07/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Babu's Story: A Child Worker In The Shipyards Of Bangladesh

NOTE: This Reporter's Notebook accompanies the story on public radio's Marketplace which aired on June 18. For the original radio story, go here.

"Did anybody ever tell you," I asked the child worker sitting on the cement floor, "'You're only 13, you shouldn't have to work like this'?"

Ismael "Babu" Hussein paused to reflect on the question. All around him were other kids, sitting in the small airless room that was shared by several worker families who sleep there in shifts. Like Babu, these boys, some as young as 12, do the risky, often terrifying work of breaking down ships by hand on the beaches of Chittagong, Bangladesh. The boys are apprentices to older "masters" who operate the blowtorches that cut the steel walls into six-by-ten-foot plates, and thus turn useless old tankers and cargo ships into usable scrap.

When their masters get tired, Babu and his fellow child laborers often handle the blowtorches on their own, frequently without goggles, risking serious injury or blindness. Some are forced to climb tall rope ladders to the ships' highest points to retrieve items, risking death if they slip. And all the children are on constant lookout for falling metal plates and rods, which have killed many a worker before them. Lately, Babu has been having nightmares of falling steel, or of being thrown into melting iron by an angry boss.

"There was another foreign guy who came here years ago,"Babu answered after a pause. "He also said this. But nobody else ever told me this before, except the foreign guy."

Indeed, for many of the children here, the idea that they shouldn't work is an entirely foreign concept. Despite laws in Bangladesh restricting child labor, the reality is starkly different. A
2005 report from the International Labour Organization says in Bangladesh, a country of 65 million packed into a land mass the size of Wisconsin, there are nearly 5 million laborers under the age of 15.

The context, of course, is poverty. Babu's father, Atiqur, was 13 himself when he came to Chittagong looking for work. Today, 25 years later, he loads scrap metal onto waiting trucks, for which he is paid about three dollars a day. But the work is sporadic, and after paying the rent on the family's tiny bamboo shack, he has barely forty cents left to feed each of the family members: Atiqur and his wife Hosneara; Babu; daughter Bethi-Akhtar; and son Papi. With no other options, Atiqur and Hosneara recently sat their eldest son down and told him they needed his help. Babu, who never learned to read or write, would go to work. His job would add $2.20 to the family's daily budget.

"If it wasn't for my labor, my family would starve," Babu says. Still, he dreams of something else. "There is no fun in the work. I wish I could find something easier to do."

According to advocates for the shipyard workers, the work shouldn't be so hard - or so dangerous.

When decommissioned ships plow into Chittagong's beaches, armies of poor Bangladeshis walk along the tidal flats and begin the work of dismantling. More than 20,000 laborers work in the city's 36 shipyards. They unload every item - sinks, toilets, couches, crystal, flatware, microwaves, computers, mops, life preservers - and transport them to the dozens of shops lining the road north of Chittagong. Then begins the work of blowtorch and hammer. Teams of workers, hundreds strong, can dismantle a ship in four to six weeks. Many of the ships contain toxic materials, sometimes hidden in pipes that workers will cut open with their torches. These include asbestos, PCBs, arsenic-laced paint, and tons of oil and grease. Add to that the risk of falling steel from vessels that are literally coming apart, and it's easy to understand why Babu has nightmares.

According to a 2005 report by Greenpeace and the International Federation for Human Rights, between 1975 and 2005 an estimated 1,000 Bangladeshis died from accidents in the shipbreaking yards - an average of about three deaths per month. Statistics cited by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) suggest the figure is much higher: 2,000 deaths since 1998. Unknown numbers of others are maimed or severely sickened by toxics. It's impossible to know how many become ill or eventually die, for example, from exposure to asbestos.

Environmental and human rights groups, led by BELA, have been fighting on national and international fronts for worker and environmental protection. In March 2009, BELA lawyers won a ruling from the country's highest court, ordering the shipyards to shut down for two weeks and requiring them to get government-issued environmental clearances. The shutdown angered many worker families like Babu's, for whom bad work is better than none. An estimated 10,000 shipbreaking laborers and their families, concerned for their jobs, protested the High Court ruling.

The High Court also ruled that ships would no longer be able to enter Bangladesh's waters without first "pre-cleaning" their toxic wastes. This was a huge victory for shipbreaking watchdogs, but given the country's history of strong laws and weak enforcement, advocates say it isn't enough.

"All the agencies - environment, labor, shipping - they have categorically failed to protect the laborers from this havoc," says BELA director Rizwana Hasan, who in April 2009 won the Goldman Environmental Prize, a prestigious international award recognizing "grassroots environmental heroes." Hasan and her colleagues are pushing for international measures requiring pre-cleaning of ships, and a ban on shipbreaking on beaches.

A 64-nation accord signed in Hong Kong in May 2009 will require companies to produce toxic inventories, but will not fundamentally change the shipbreaking workers' operations. "Yards that have been dormant for years are bouncing back to life," acknowledged Enam Ahmed, technical head of the Bangladesh Shipbreakers Association, in an interview with Agence France Presse. "There's a sense a boom time is coming with more ships heading our way."
Not surprisingly, BELA and other advocates are highly critical of the accord for for not going far enough. "I don't want the developed countries to take Bangladesh as a dumping site," Hasan told me, "and to take our laborers and our environment for granted."

For Hasan and her fellow activists, the goal is not to destroy the shipbreaking industry, but to bring it under stricter labor and environmental controls. Crucial for Bangladesh - as well as other shipbreaking nations like India, Pakistan, China, Vietnam, and Turkey - will be not only the agreements themselves, but also enforcement. This will become more pressing as single-hull oil tankers are phased out by 2010, sending more decommissioned ships to South Asian shores.

"A work should give people dignity," Hasan told me in her office in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital. "A work should provide you a better life. A work should be able to bring you out of your poverty circle. It is not doing any of these things. So it's not a solution to unemployment, it is just exploitation. And they're doing it because these people are poor, and no one is listening to what they have to say."

For Babu, who doesn't follow the national debate and in any case can't read any of the agreements, the issue is simple. If there are rules about safety, why doesn't anyone follow them?

"They usually don't provide us with protective equipment, but when any law enforcement agency comes into the yard to check, they immediately provide all this stuff for half an hour or so," he says with a frown. "Then they take it back when the inspectors leave. My question is 'Why?' Why do they only provide this stuff when the law enforcement people come? Why don't they give it to us all day, every day, so we can protect ourselves?"

Special thanks to Mainul Islam Khan and Shah Mohammed Nurul Islam, for indispensable help; to producer Ki-Min Sung; to Ismael "Babu" Hussein and his parents, Atiqur and Hosneara; and to Kavan Prabhu of Nairobi, Kenya, who provides the English-language voice of Babu in the radio program.

For information on the history of the global shipbreaking industry, see "The Shipbreakers," the Baltimore Sun's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning series by Gary Cohn and Will Englund.