The Ship Breakers Of Bangladesh

Ship Breaking Industry Arrived In Bangladesh By Accident, Literally

This segment was originally broadcast on Nov. 5, 2006. It was updated on Aug. 29, 2007.

Now and then 60 Minutes take viewers to places they've never been to before. They are exotic places, the stuff of dreams. This is a story about one of those places. But as Bob Simon reports, the ship breaking beaches of Bangladesh belong more in a nightmare.

We all know how ships are born, how majestic vessels are nudged into the ocean with a bottle of champagne. But few of us know how they die. And hundreds of ships meet their death every year. From five-star ocean liners, to grubby freighters, literally dumped with all their steel, their asbestos, their toxins on the beaches of some the poorest countries in the world, countries like Bangladesh.

You can't really believe how bad it is here, until you see it. It could be as close as you'll get to hell on earth, with the smoke, the fumes, and the heat. The men who labor here are the wretched of the earth, doing dirty, dangerous work, for little more than $1 a day.

It's not much of a final resting place, this desolate beach near the city of Chittagong on the Bay of Bengal. Ships are lined up here as at any port, but they'll never leave. Instead, they will be dissected, bolt by bolt, rivet by rivet, every piece of metal destined for the furnaces to be melted down and fashioned into steel rods. The ships don't die easily - they are built to float, not to be ripped apart, spilling toxins, oil and sludge into the surrounding seas.

The men who work here are dwarfed by the ships they are destroying. And they dissect the ships by hand. The most sophisticated technology on the beach is a blowtorch. The men carry metal plates, each weighing more than a ton from the shoreline to waiting trucks, walking in step like pallbearers, or like members of a chain gang. They paint images of where they would like to be on the trucks - pictures of paradise far from this wasteland.

And when night falls, the work continues and the beach becomes an inferno of smoke and flames and filth.

This industry, which employs thousands and supplies Bangladesh with almost all its steel, began with an accident - a cyclone to be precise. In 1965, a violent storm left a giant cargo ship beached on what was then a pristine coastline. It didn't take long before people began ripping the ship apart. They took everything and businessmen took note - perhaps they didn't need a storm to bring ships onto this beach here.

Mohammed Mohsin's family has become extremely wealthy bringing ships onto these beaches. He pays millions of dollars for each ship and makes his profit from the steel he sells. The name of his company is PHP, which stands for Peace, Happiness and Prosperity.

His latest acquisition is a ship weighing in at 4,000 tons but Mohsin tells Simon that's small by comparison to other vessels that have been gutted on the beaches. They have handled ships as large as 68,000 tons.

This the first time Mohsin has seen the 4,000 ton ship close up. In fact buying a ship is not at all like buying a car. He didn't even need to see a picture before he bought it for $14 million. All he needed to know was its weight and how much the owners were charging for each ton of steel.

One of the single most valuable parts of the ship is the propeller. The "small" ships propeller is worth around $35,000 alone, Mohsin estimates.

It may be a small ship to Mohsin, but getting onto it from the beach is still a bit delicate.

Mohsin's ships don't have seafaring captains anymore - he is the captain now of dying ships and the captain of one of the largest of 30 shipyards on this 10-mile stretch of beach. Some 100 ships are ripped apart on the beach each year, most of them from the west.

"It is the west's garbage dump," says Roland Buerk, who lives in Bangladesh. He spent a year in these yards, writing a book about the industry. 60 Minutes hired him to guide Simon through the tangled world of shipbreaking.

To do the same work in America or England would be very expensive.

"It would be because in Europe and America when they do this, they do it in dry docks," Buerk explains. "So in actual fact, the owners of these ships are selling them to the yard owners here to break up. If they had to do it in America, they'd have to pay for that process to be carried out. So you see it makes real economic sense to do it here."

"So old, out-dated ships that were previously a liability, are now an asset," Simon remarks.

"Exactly," Buerk agrees. "And that's why they end up on these shores."