‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.’
(Confucius – Chinese Philosopher, BC 551 – BC 479)
Sometimes as I’m lying in bed at night I can hear a familiar and distinct sound from outside. Even above the whirring of the fan it’s audible and fairly constant. The clunking noise of hammer hitting nail. The perpetual thud thud thud of tools and machinery, and the chatter with occasional laughter from the workers who operate them. And yes, I did say I can hear all of this as I lie in bed, because you see, construction workers in Bangladesh let no time go to waste. Every minute of every day is precious, and as long as there’s still work to be done they’ll persist with the task, even if this does mean working in darkness under a single light bulb.
Chittagong is a rapidly developing city. According to some sources it’s actually listed in the top ten fastest developing cities in the world and thus if you’re a construction worker it would appear there’s plenty of work available. In Kulshi alone the predominant sight is one of concrete structures stretching high into the blue skies above and an army of men ensuring the building work is completed in as little time possible. It’s a risky business though and from what I’ve witnessed so far it seems that it’s an occupation that is unsympathetic in regards to both health and safety and workers’ rights.
Most of the new buildings are nine or ten storeys high, so this is not the occupation for anyone who suffers from vertigo. The workers live on site, literally. They eat, sleep and wash in the shells of the half-built structures, leaving only it seems for daily prayers. Quite often as we pound the backstreets of Kulshi at 6am on our morning run we’re met by the sight of construction workers brushing their teeth on the road outside their current project. They never seem to get used to the sight of us though, stopping mid brush to stare at the strange running spectacle before them. Bangladeshi construction workers must have some of the cleanest teeth in the world though as there are times we pass them on lap two of the run and they’re still vigorously brushing away.
There have often been times when I’ve stood on my balcony staring out across the rooftops of Kulshi and my eyes have been drawn to these workers as I stare in admiration. One day it dawned on me that they’re occupation is quite frankly, less than safe, perilous potentially. They stand, sit or perch on the very top of the structures they’re working on with no form of protection or back up if they were to slip. They hang from the building on a simple rope ladder, again with no thought or appreciation it would seem for their own safety (see photos below). It got me thinking about dangerous occupations and the fact that in developing countries jobs which we’d perhaps consider as being routine and generally unproblematic, can in fact prove to be life-threatening.
Tigers and lightning. What are the chances of either of these two perils taking your life? In the UK I think it’s fair to say the chances are incredibly slim. You’d have to be terribly unlucky to end up the victim of either, and if you did it would probably end up making the news press accompanied by various instructions on how people could avoid meeting the same fate. However, in Bangladesh the chances happen to be far greater. My attention was grabbed by two news articles quite recently. The first informed readers that on one fateful day back in May, forty people lost their lives in Bangladesh due to lightning. Forty people in a single day. Such a grim statistic would be unimaginable in most other countries, yet in Bangladesh it barely raises an eyebrow. The monsoon season brings unyielding rains and violent tropical storms, and if you happen to be a person whose occupation involves working under the clouds during all of this extreme weather it leaves you particularly vulnerable as these forty sorry souls discovered one May day. Most of the victims were farmers (harvesting rice in the vast paddy fields) or fishermen. Does anyone recall this shocking news being reported on the BBC or Sky News, or any other international broadcasting network? No. Me neither. However, if it had been Kerry Katona, Jordan or Jedward struck down by a lightning bolt they’d have been crying in the streets all across the UK. However, that’s another point altogether.
The second article which leapt out at me as I browsed the internet was one about tigers…and their predatory instincts in the Sundarbans forests of South West Bangladesh. For many fishermen in the region the simple occupation of honey collecting can present fatal consequences. I won’t go into the details in this blog as the article below explains it all. However, to summarise, the period of April to June in the Sundarbans forests is officially honey-gathering season. During these months the local fishermen will attempt to earn much needed money for their families and in doing so they have to fend off snakes, crocodiles and tigers. Tragically around eighty of them each year lose their lives. Once again, just imagine if Peaches Geldof or Callum Best were gobbled up by a tiger on ‘I’m a D-List Celebrity, Get me Out of Here’. Ant and Dec would have us weeping in our armchairs for weeks. As I said, have a read of this article to get the full extent of what honey collecting in the Sundarbans actually means for some people.
A further occupation which is arguably just as unpleasant and unnerving as the others is one which provides a wage to thousands and thousands of Bangladeshi men. Many of them are based in my home city of Chittagong and they work as ship breakers. In the sand on the outskirts of the city several large vessels can be found beached and ready to be dismantled, piece by piece and all will eventually end in the furnace, melted down to be transformed into steel rods which are then sold. Chittagong is a graveyard for ships. One hundred end their seafaring lives here each year in thirty shipyards which line a ten mile stretch of beach.
For the men who work in these yards life is gruelling, intense and most crucially, life-threatening. I read an article which described the shipyards as ‘hell on earth’ as the workers are engulfed in an unrelenting concoction of the most severe heat, smoke and fumes you will find as they dismantle the now stranded vessels. Technology is scarce. The bare hand is the main tool of the workers with an occasional blowtorch thrown in for good measure. As such it’s estimated that fifty lose their lives in the shipyards each year and many more are injured as a result of accidents. A lack of training and rights mean that this is a perpetual tragedy that doesn’t look set to relent any time soon.
For a more detailed look into this follow this link:
So there you have it, a very brief look at some issues which shocked me when I read about them. We often moan back home about the far-reaching and often excessive health and safety measures that appear to blight our progress, freedom and fun at work. Yet, I guess we should appreciate that although being sometimes a dull hindrance, many of the measures are there for our protection. For the majority of us there’s a solid expectation that when we head off to work each day we’ll also return home at the end of it. Some people can’t enjoy this expectation and unfortunately this is a widespread truth right across the developing world. I’ll leave you with this simple but telling fact. The ship breakers I mentioned earlier work for as little as a dollar per day.
p.s. to provide a little humour at my own expense, and to try and lighten up an otherwise morbid and depressing blog, the two photos below demonstrate that even being a teacher can bring with it a certain amount of hazard and risk…