Shipbreaking: The Most Dangerous Job in the World

What happens to cargo ships at the end of their lives? Often, they wind up beached on shores in the global south where untrained and unprotected workers are tasked with breaking them apart in dangerous conditions. In this episode, Host Ngofeen Mputwbwele takes listeners to the beaches of Bangladesh where Human Rights Watch recently completed an investigation of the shipbreaking industry. Here, in what the International Labour Organization calls the most dangerous job in the world, workers are hit with nails, maimed by exploding pipes, sickened by exposure to asbestos and have been trapped in burning hulls as they “recycle” the ships that transport consumer goods to Europe, the United States and beyond. 


Host: The first thing I saw was a picture of the ships. Imagine a ship the size of the Titanic, even bigger, beached on the shore.   It's made of bare, rusted metals, like the inside of an oxidized car under the hood, or a neglected bicycle chain rotting out into red gritty metal.

The ship is massive. The bottom touches the sand and the top is so high up from the ground, it feels like, like looking up at the goals you'll never accomplish. Then, you notice all around you the beach, it's completely lifeless - no crabs, no fishermen.   And that's when you realize that there's not just one ship, it's ship after ship after ship broken down into husks.   They've been torn apart - what looks like charred bits of shipwreck rubble. And honestly, it feels like you're at the end of the world.  Like the ground looks volcanic, everything is brown, black, there's orange from hellfires burning and gray plumes of smoke.

And then slowly the sounds come to you. The waves, and then the drilling. And then you notice people, some of them are holding drills. Some of them are wrapped in t-shirts. Remember those faces wrapped in t-shirts. They’ll be important.

They kind of look the way that miners look underground - covered in what feels like soot.   And then you notice everyone is brown, and many of them are afraid for their lives. ‘Nails hit us’, they say. ‘Flames hit us’. You can get trapped inside these massive ships and they catch on fire. Pipes explode. One worker describes being blown back in an explosion with so much force that his back breaks.

The International Labour Organization, the ILO, has called this one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet.

This is Rights and Wrongs, a podcast from Human Rights Watch.   I’m Ngofeen Mputubwele. I take you to the places in the world where human rights are most in danger, telling you the story through the experiences of the people on the front lines of history.   

On this episode, we’re talking about shipbreaking

Bangledeshi voice - Babul: It is a tough job. I have burn marks all over my body.

Host: And we are in Bangladesh…

Bangladeshi voice - Farid: Now we don’t have a safe place anymore. So, who will take responsibility? I can’t hold any one owner accountable when I don’t know exactly which ship made me ill. 

Bangladeshi voice - Rehana: He couldn’t tell her my dad had died on the spot. He was at a loss.   But we need our father for protection.

Host: Bangladesh is a country I don't know a lot about going into this…

Ngofeen: The French, they're like a people who love simple food.

Host: And so .  .  .

Ngofeen: The Italians are people who love craftsmanship.

Host: I talked to someone from there and asked.

Ngofeen: The Congolese, where my family's from, they love drama and they love clothes. How would you describe Bangladeshi people and culture?

Rizwana: Bangladeshi people are fish lovers and very noisy.

Host: Okay.   What kind of noisy?

Rizwana: If you come out of the airport of Dhaka, you will never find any other airport that has so many noises to welcome people.  You know, we speak loudly.   There are very few soft spoken people in this country. At times we sound as if we are quarreling, but our language actually is very rhythmic and it's very sweet. I mean, whispering is not in our culture. You know what I mean?

Ngofeen: Yes, I do know exactly what you mean.

Host: So this is Rizwana - Rizwana Hasan. She's an attorney. She told me she's the only full time environmental attorney in the entire country of Bangladesh.  We talked as she was celebrating Ramadan not too long ago.  Rizwana told me about her first trip to a shipbreaking site.

Ngofeen: Is it at a beach?

Rizwana: It is a beach, very much a beach. It is under the sky, in the open, on the beach itself.

Ngofeen: And can you just describe what it looked like that first time that you went?

Rizwana: Huge vessels on the beach. You could see it from, um, you know, say half a kilometer away. It was few workers all working with their hands in different parts of the vessel, trying to dismantle the vessel. You could see the torch lights because they will actually be using the torch to separate different parts of the vessels. So, what was really painful for me to see is people working under the sky in scorching heat. In 36, 39 degree temperature without any shade coming from anywhere.

So the fact that they were working without any protection in that heat just took me back to Dubai, where I see many Bangladeshi laborers. working in buildings, painting buildings, plastering the outer side of the building in scorching heat. And every time I see these laborers, I feel very bad for them.

So now, now I saw this, the same thing happening in my own country.

Ngofeen: And I was just Googling, you said 36 to 39 degrees which is like 96 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit.  That is insanely hot to be working outside.

Rizwana: Absolutely. It's very hot.

Julia: Yes, the violations are happening on Bangladesh's beaches, but the fact that the ships are there is not entirely Bangladesh's fault. The involvement of corporations, the EU and all of the countries in the global North that are sending their ships and other forms of toxic waste to these really poor countries like Bangladesh.

Ngofeen: Who are you and what do you do at Human Rights Watch?

Julia: I'm Julia Bleckner. I'm a senior researcher on health and human rights. I focus primarily on environmental health.   So, the export of toxic substances and toxics like ships to the global South that harm people living there. In like 2011, I was living in Bangladesh, not working for Human Rights Watch. And had gone down to the shipbreaking yards just to see what it was like there. It's a wild thing to behold - it's like giant - these like giant ships that are basically shipwrecked onto the beach.   

Rizwana: People carrying the heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy metal sheets on their shoulder.

Julia: I talked to Rizwana, years later, about where we would actually have some added value.  She really highlighted to me the value of documenting these abuses from an international angle.

Ngofeen: What's the relationship between the ordinary person, let's say living in New York city or Los Angeles Brussels or Berlin or Tokyo and shipbreaking in Bangladesh.   Like, what is the connection point between those two things?

Rizwana: An ordinary people in New York would wear a t-shirt that is made in Bangladesh and would care about how this shirt has been made, what chemical has gone into it, whether any form of forced labor or exploitation has got into it. The difference is, the same New Yorker does not care about when the same Bangladeshi laborer has to break their vessel, just to keep their territory free of hazardous material. The Western people only know that the vessels are carrying the T-shirts for them from Bangladesh. They don't know that when the vessels can't ply anymore, they are not bringing the T-shirts anymore. They rather dump there on the territories on the beaches of Bangladesh, just to destroy our environment and kill our people.

So when they're importer, they're careful about what they're bringing to their country. When they're exporter, they're not careful about what they're dumping. You get so sick working there for two and a half months that you need to go to the doctor, get some medication. Sometimes you lose parts of your body. Sometimes you develop breathing difficulties. Sometimes you get problems with your vision because you use the torch without the glasses.

So it's not employment at all to me. It’s clear exploitation

Ngofeen: And so it's like a co it's like a, it's a couple month contract essentially, but not really a contract…

Rizwana: It's bonded labor.

Ngofeen: Say more about what you mean when you say that.

Rizwana: It’s bonded labor because you are brought to a particular place, with some hope. When you come here, you are told that you will have to do this work. This is your working hour. Okay? There is no agreement given to you. Although the government has now come up with a minimum wage package, but nobody is monitoring as to who is paying that package.

So your salary is dictated by them. Your working hour is dictated by them.  There is no agreement given to you. If you refuse to work, you are not allowed to come back. You can't carry your mobile to your workplace. You can't take a picture with your co-worker because they fear that that way the stories are getting leaked to the outer world. You know? So, you don't have any freedom. See, if you don't have any freedom and all of your job conditions are dictated by a middleman, what else is it if not bonded labor?

Host: The thing about shipbreaking isn't just that it's hot and it’s long. It's that our lives in developed countries and in the West directly influence what’s happening in Bangladesh.  These ships that workers are breaking down, these are ships that come from the developed countries -- from France, from Germany, from Greece, from the United States, from China -- and this is where we're going to have to talk for a minute about science and history.

Sampled audio: Attention! If you or a loved one was diagnosed with mesothelioma, you may be entitled to financial compensation.

Host: So you remember these commercials, right? I remember growing up with them on TV.

Sampled audio: Mesothelioma is a rare cancer linked to asbestos exposure.

Host: I'm a word nerd and the etymology of the word asbestos to me is fascinating.  ‘Sbestos’ is Greek, meaning quenchable and ‘A’ is not. So, unquenchable, not quenchable. And asbestos is a rock, it’s a fibrous rock. It’s thought to get its name from the fact that if you threw it in a fire, it wouldn’t get marred or stained, like corroded.   Inextinguishable.   The minerals were heat and fire resistant, and they were really strong.   They could be woven together or embedded into different products, where their heat resistant and strength qualities are pretty useful. Fire resistant clothing, brake pads, gaskets, pizza ovens. And I’m sure you’ve heard asbestos can make you sick. But do you know how?

So, say you’re a shipbreaker in Bangladesh. One that’s met with Rizwana. Asbestos cloth was used in building ships for years, especially around world war II. One of the things it was used for was to wrap hot pipes so they wouldn't burn ship personnel. Right? So pipes get very hot. You wrap the ship pipe in asbestos.   You won't get burned. Now, you’re taking about that ship in Bangladesh and you breath in asbestos fibers. For some people nothing happens. But for others, the asbestos fibers can basically puncture the membrane of a cell. Within one day, they move to the area where the chromosomes are. And that fiber can then physically come in contact with your DNA and then interfere with the normal process of replication and cell division. And when that happens, that means that your new cells that have multiplied can have a missing chromosome or an extra chromosome or some other form of a mutation and that mutation can lead to cancer of the lining of the lungs. That is mesothelioma.

But here’s the kicker, it can be 20 to 40 years between when the asbestos contact comes in contact with your cells and when the illness manifests.

Sampled audio: Exposure to asbestos in the navy, shipyards, mills, heating…. 

Host:  Mesothelioma is only one issue that can come from this. You can get asbestosis, you can get other things, and the list of symptoms that can result are like the side effects in a pharmaceutical ad. Shortness of breath, persistent dry cough, chest tightness, chest pain, a dry crackling sound in the lungs while breathing and wider and rounder than normal fingertips and toes.

That whole list of symptoms I just gave you, that’s what you find in shipbreaking workers in Bangladesh.

[Montage of Bangladeshi workers using the word “asbestos”]

Julia: Most of the ships being broken down in Bangladesh are about 20 or so years old. So they all are filled with asbestos and, without a face mask, with bare hands, - people are walking over sand that's, like, full of chunks of metal, completely barefoot. A number, yeah, of workers described inhaling toxic fumes and breathing in burning asbestos. but, like, just using, like, their t-shirt to cover their mouths. There’s that but then also just so many heavy metals and PCBs in ships. The paint is really toxic. If it's being broken down right on the sand, it's going into the ecosystem. But also fishermen who live nearby described having to sail further and further out into the ocean over the years because they just couldn't get any fish anymore because they - they were all dying anywhere near the ships and also because the ships were cutting through their fishing nets.

I spoke to one worker who had previously been a fisherman and then was not getting any fish. And he was like, well, I'm not getting any fish because of all these ships. I may as well go work on the ships. Yeah, and then there's also been like tons of studies or not tons, but a lot of studies, including by the Bangladesh government, looking at the level of heavy metals in fruits and vegetables that are grown nearby.   In some cases it's just like so far beyond the levels that are safe to consume that yeah, people are - end up growing food that then is full of heavy metals. And like this, the food is also toxic. 

Host: And just when you think it can't get any worse it does.   Like it literally piles up - the ship's scrap metal itself piles up.

Rizwana: People carrying the heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy metal on their shoulder.

Julia: There's no toxic waste management facility to bring it to at the end. So it ends up actually just being sold in the market.   A couple of workers described as asbestos villages, areas where they've just used asbestos for making furniture or, like asbestos stoves where they make a stove, like out of basically cinder block and asbestos that then people are using to like cook inside of their homes. Everybody who's living in and near the areas also ends up being exposed.   There's no downstream management of waste, which is exactly what, you know, the Basel convention is supposed to protect against.

Host: The Basel Convention is the last part of this story - the sort of legal framework around all of this. Like, how is any of this even possible?

So there was a convention that was put together passed in 1989 called the Basel Convention that was then amended with a thing called the Basel Ban Amendment in 1995.

Julia: It's like, it was a group of like global South countries coming together and being like stop sending all of your toxic waste to our, like to our lands.

Rizwana: When the Basel Convention came into effect, the Western countries and the waste generator of the Western countries knew that if they have to deal with their waste in their territory, it will cost them a lot. So they started bypassing the Basel Convention, created a middle group who would do all the paperwork for them, change the ownership flag of the vessel, so that it no longer is a US, Japanese or European vessel. It rather takes the flag of Tuvalu, or Trinidad Tobago or Panama. And then it can sail off from the European, American, Japanese territory as a vessel belonging to a small island country where paperwork is pretty easy. They used to first send it to the Southeast Asian countries, but when Southeast Asian countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Bangkok, they said, ‘No, it's too harmful for our people and for our environment. We won't, we won't take it’, then the middle people started sending the vessels to Bangladesh.

And they found Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan as suitable for shipwrecking. And they also got the nodding from the Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan administration.   But you know, classic example of Western hypocrisy - they want to keep their backyards clean at the cost of messing up our backyards.

Host: All of this ultimately ties into the idea of greenwashing. The Hong Kong convention is this convention that’s supposed to come into force next year in 2025.   It sort of purports to set a new standard for ship recycling.   But in reality, many shipping companies have advocated for this law in part because the requirements are really really low.  So, no requirement that the receiving country have sustainable waste management practices, and no ban on dismantling ships directly on the beach where the chemicals can seep into the ground, rather than doing it on a platform, say with cranes and safety equipment.  

Given that, I was curious to see for Rizwana how all of this strikes her, as someone who's from the place that's being affected and who has been trying for decades to improve things.

Rizwana: I work with the laborers. My God, I've been working in this sector for 21, 22 years.  I do have sleep disturbance. There are points when I lose my temperament, uh, to an extent that you won't call me a professional person anymore.   But then, but then I talk to myself and my colleagues all understand that I'm stressed because of this, because I take the, try to take, I can't, I should not be saying that, but I try to take the pain of every disabled shipwrecking worker to my heart. I try to solve their problems. I take, try to take them to doctors. I try to raise funds for them. I take their cases to the court.

But I am hopeful because I - you know, there are many people dying, but I don't know about you, Ngofeen, but I, I firmly believe that there is something called natural justice, and there is no way that these people can escape natural justice. And we have exposed them. Nobody respects the shipwreckers as ethical business people, you know.

So yes, it has taken some toll. But then it's okay. I mean, I'm still surviving, uh, in high spirit with hopes for changes. 

Tirana Hassan: Hi. This is Tirana Hassan – the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. At Human Rights Watch, we investigate and report on abuses happening in every corner of the world. We’re journalists, country experts, lawyers and other professionals who are doing everything we can to expose perpetrators and to help protect vulnerable people. We’re a nonprofit, but to keep our independence, we don’t take money from governments. That’s why we rely on support from people like you. If you value what we do, please donate. Go to That’s Thank you.

Host: When Rizwana started this work two decades ago, very few people in her community knew about shipbreaking. On top of the individual lives she’s changed, the stories HRW has told, Rizwana’s advocacy has been successful in one really important way: it’s made the industry infamous.

Every part of the shipping process for centuries, has been central to tragedies.  From ship building, and the latent poison of asbestos, tearing up your lungs, to the shipping itself.  Centuries before, ships laden with bodies, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to become laborers in the U.S. And then at the end of ships lives, now in our modern times, those, those asbestos-built ships torn up on coasts where brown people work in, eat food off of asbestos made ovens. 

What looks like a story about Bangladesh is only the narrowest aperture.   When you widen it, countries like France, Germany, other European countries, the U.S.  all come into focus.   The idea of us living separate crises to me, more and more, seems like a complete illusion. The minutiae of our lives in the West, down to our waste management practices can affect the cellular makeup of people in Bangladesh when we throw our ships away.

I keep thinking about the origin of that word asbestos. Inextinguishable. Unquenchable. I wish there was some way to extinguish those fibers. 

Human Rights Watch’s report on shipbreaking is called ‘Trading Lives for Profit: How the Shipping Industry Circumvents Regulations to Scrap Toxic Ships on Bangladesh’s Beaches’.

The report concludes that shipping companies should invest in building stable platform facilities at a standard that fully protects workers’ rights and handles waste disposal. And the EU should revise its rules to close loopholes.

You can read the report on

You’ve been listening to Rights and Wrongs, from Human Rights Watch. This episode was produced by me and Curtis Fox. Our associate producer is Sophie Soloway. Thanks also to Ifé Fatunase, Stacy Sullivan, Blaire Palmer and Anthony Gale. Music this episode is by me.


I’m Ngofeen Mputubwele. See you next time.