Bangladesh lies squarely in the middle of the waterlogged floodplains of some of Asia's largest rivers and relies on water transportation to ship huge quantities of goods and vast numbers of people up and down the watery arteries that traverse the country. It is no surprise, therefore, that shipping and other maritime industries play a significant part in underpinning the economy. Until recently, however, Bangladesh was best known for ship-breaking, with huge scrap yards lining the coast for miles near Chittagong, the second largest ship breaking area in the world, accounting for one fifth of all global ship-breaking and employing nearly a quarter of a million Bangladeshis. Any ships that were actually built domestically were destined for the country's rivers and often had a poor safety record, sinking ferries being an all too familiar phenomenon on the crowded waterways.
In recent years, however, the country's ship builders have been slowly edging their way up the ranks of ship exporters, selling to highly competitive markets such as Germany and Denmark. Since 2008, vessels worth around USD 500 million have left the shores of Bangladesh to customers in the West. Compared to modern ship building giants like South Korea and China, this is relatively small fry. But Bangladeshi ship builders are confident of their competitive advantage over their rivals, pointing to the large numbers of skilled workers and low labour costs.
Over the next 5 years, the industry is hoping to receive orders for over USD 2 billion and to expand into vessels larger than the 10,000 tonne size that is currently the largest which can be built. Already adept at supplying the thriving domestic market for smaller vessels which are estimated to carry some 70% of the country's cargo, many shipbuilding yards are looking further afield to expand their operations. Another advantage for the Bangladeshi industry is the fact that industry leaders like Japan, Korea and China are concentrating on highly specialised and hi-tech shipbuilding and have largely lost interest in the small to medium size vessel categories. Bangladesh is perfectly placed to take up the slack and fill this gap.
Though the economic downturn in Europe and America has dampened demand and left some ship builders with half finished ships which their customers are unable to pay for, domestic demand has remained buoyant and the economy continues to grow at around 6% per year. There are also negotiations afoot between Bangladesh and India to allow India full transit rights for goods destined to its northeastern states which for now have to be shipped by rail and road along a circuitous route through the mountains. More shipping could mean more demand for ships and thus more jobs.
GMB Akash trawled through some of Dhaka's busiest ship building yards and met some of the thousands of workers who are building ships for Bangladesh.