The "Iron Eaters" of Bangladesh
Cruel Logic of Exploitation

The documentary "Iron Eaters" presents the tough reality of the ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh. Sonja Ernst had a look at Shaheen Dill-Riaz's award-winning film

film still: Zahidul Karim Zelim
When work is an ordeal, stoicism is the only answer: a ship-breaking industry peon in a scene from Shaheen Dill-Riaz's "Iron Eaters"

​​The leviathans of the seas rise majestically from the sand of a beach in the south of Bangladesh. Old oil tankers and container ships await their slaughter – the unwanted waste of the "First World". In the cutaway wrecks echo the deafening sound of hammers and the calls of the welders far across the sand. Bit by bit, the old ships are broken up.

Between the ocean liners, Kholil and his men look like ants. They carry a thick iron rope on their shoulders across the broad beach to one of the ships. "What's up over there?! Pull, don't fall asleep," shouts a foreman. Under the weight of the rope, their bodies sway to and fro, sinking knee-deep into the mud.

Once at the ship, they fasten the rope to one of the huge pieces of metal, which is then pulled to the shipyard. If the rope breaks, it can easily cut off a man's leg or even kill him.

"Peace, Happiness and Prosperity"

Little is known about the work in the ship-breaking industry in India, China and Bangladesh. Trade unionists and the media are unwelcome here. Shaheen Dill-Riaz's 85-minute documentary "Iron Eaters" is the first ever portrait of one of these shipyards.

photo: Zahidul Karim Selim
Dwarfed: a day labourer at work

​​He spent four months filming at the "Peace, Happiness and Prosperity" shipyard in the port town of Chittagong. It took him a lot of persuasion, says Dill-Riaz (38). "We started filming under strict conditions."

The filmmaker remembers the old ships from his childhood in the south of Bangladesh. Later, in 1995, Dill-Riaz went to Germany to study as a cameraman. "Iron Eaters" is his third documentary about his home country. "My great advantage is that I'm not just from Bangladesh and not just from Germany or Western Europe. I'm somewhere in between."

A gift from God

The ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh has been growing since the 1960s, and now supports three million people. Every year, the shipyard owners buy up ships for several hundred million US dollars.

photo: Zahidul Karim Selim
Chronicler of hard work: Shaheen Dill-Riaz

​​The iron from the ships is mainly sold to the construction industry. About sixty percent of ship-breaking around the world now takes place in the shipyards of Bangladesh.

The coast is ideal for the industry: the deep water of the sea gives way suddenly to shallow beaches, so the ships run aground late. "The beach is a gift from God," we are told in the film. But the real "gift" is the cheap labour.

For example Kholil: he's been coming to the shipyard for 15 years, bringing men and boys from his village with him. Young Riazur for instance, who has to feed his entire family. Or Ershadul, who has lost his land to erosion. The poverty in the villages drives these people south. And every time they return home with next to nothing – just silent rage, often tricked out of their pay.

Working like mules – for a pittance

Gradually, the dense and intensive film exposes a system of exploitation and a hierarchy that nobody dares to shake up. "That's what the whole film is based on," says Dill-Riaz. The rope-carriers from the north are the "idiots", even poorer than the rest. They do the hardest physical work – for 70 cents a day.

The same goes for the sheet-carriers. Eight or ten men carry iron sheets on their shoulders to be transported by truck. Just cut out of the ships, the edges are still red-hot. But time is money. Faces transfigured by pain, the men go about their work with even steps, like pall-bearers.

All the other men at the shipyard come from the south. Especially the foremen and the contractors, who take a share of the profit – and of course the shipyard owner. The land on which the shipyard now stands once belonged to the contractors. They supervise the workers and pay the wages.

"What can we do, beat up the contractor?"

The rope-carriers spent their advance long ago. They run up high bills for food with the local traders – relatives of the contractors. In the meantime, the rice harvest is approaching in their villages and their wives need their help. But they don't get paid.

"If I gave them their money they'd all run away and I'd have to close down the shipyard," says one of the contractors. The situation comes to a head; the men are desperate and angry. They tell Kholil to get them their wages at last, they want to go home. But Kholil backs down under pressure in the office, swallows his rage and lets the contractor get away with it. What can he do?

There are people at the top and people at the bottom, there are winners and losers. "But if the economy remains the priority and not social balance, life in Bangladesh won't be tolerable for much longer. Hunger and poverty are too powerful," says Dill-Riaz. The rope-carriers go home without a penny of their wages.

And they'll be back: Kholil, Riazur, Ershadul and all the others. Soon after filming, the fields in the north of Bangladesh were flooded again. Hunger broke out. Poverty has the people firmly under its control.

Sonja Ernst

© 2007

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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