Tag Archives: Labour

Building the River’s Monsters

River traffic passes the shipyard in the early morning on the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

River traffic passes the shipyard in the early morning on the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

After the boat problems we’d had a few days earlier, we decided to take another shot at locating a large shipyard we had heard build and repaired some of the largest vessels around Ben Tre. Fearing another engine malfunction that would leave us stranded on one of the delta’s myriad canals, we called captain the night before to ask if he truly believed his boat was up to the task. Rising to the challenge, he responded with confidence and a touch of indignation: “I’d bet my life on it.”

Getting out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness for what felt like the hundredth day in a row (despite having been on the road for only a week), conversation was at a minimum as we made our way towards the riverside jetty where our boat waited for us. The boat yard was more than an hour’s drive, said the captain, and if we stood a chance at arriving in time to catch the best of the morning light we had little time to spare.

True to the captain’s word, the boat’s engine battled steadily against the Mekong’s current without even a trace of smoke.

River Monsters, Reborn

“Do what you want, just let us have some tea first,” said the manager of the shipyard, Muoi. His was translated as the number Ten, literally referring to the order in which he was born in relation to his siblings. If there was any underlying resentment from his nine older brothers and sisters about his position authority over them, Muoi chose not to share it with us. We had arrived at the facility just a few minutes after sunrise, surprising the dozen or so bleary-eyed workers who were congregating around a small wooden table to take in a few doses of morning caffeine; they seemed neither pleased, nor annoyed to see us.

Shipyard workers drink tea before the day's work begins. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Shipyard workers drink tea before the day’s work begins.

As no one in our team had been able to adequately satisfy our respective coffee addictions, we empathized with their groggy indifference and kept our cameras low until they seemed sufficiently awake to tolerate the intrusion. Even after photographing the intimate details of people’s lives full time for nearly five years, I was still aware of how violated I would feel if three strangers had arrived at my place of work and shoved a camera in my face. And so we drank tea.

It was nearly an hour before the first signs of movement started. Rising from sagging wooden benches, the workers, now numbering around twenty, moved a few metres away and squatted in a rough semi-circle under the shadow of a large and decrepit looking ship. Muoi stood in front of assembled men and women, standing rather than haunched in the dirt, and delivered the day’s instructions. Though we didn’t bother asking our translator, Mi, to relate the exact words being spoken, the message was clear enough: Today we will build and fix boats. 

Shipyard workers receive instructions about the day's tasks in the early morning. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Shipyard workers receive instructions about the day’s tasks in the early morning.

The crew listened to Muoi’s speech in silence punctuated only by the flinty sound of flicking lighters as they smoked cigarettes. When he was finished, the workers rose and spread throughout the shipyard, presumably starting where they’d left off the day before. The once quiet air was almost immediately filled with the screeching of poorly oiled power tools, and the morning stillness transformed into a frenzy of activity.

Most of the work seemed to involve patching holes on the hulls of ships that looked to have seen at least twenty years of hard service on the Mekong. First, workers attacked the rotten areas with iron pickaxes, gouging out soggy splinters to expose the metal ribs underneath. Electric grinders were then used to completely excise the abscesses, creating jagged holes that looked straight into the cavernous cargo holds. These were covered by sheets of barbed wire which were secured with nails.

Nearby, another man was tasked with the unfortunate duty of hand mixing fibreglass paste in a repurposed plastic petrol can, his face periodically obscured by clouds of yellowish powder – no doubt wreaking havoc on his respiratory system. When the substance was blended to his satisfaction, he carried the container to the patching teams and slathered the mixture over the mesh, theoretically sealing the holes. With next to no knowledge of marine engineering, we assumed the ad hoc technique was effective, otherwise the ten or so ships in the dry dock would surely have taken their business elsewhere.

A shipyard worker uses hand tools to carve out rotten sections of wood from a ship's hull before a patch can be applied. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A shipyard worker uses hand tools to carve out rotten sections of wood from a ship’s hull before a patch can be applied.

A shipyard worker clibs a ladder to access a cargo ship's hold. Around twenty workers staff the yard each day. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A shipyard worker clibs a ladder to access a cargo ship’s hold. Around twenty workers staff the yard each day.

Women work to seal cracks in a ship's hull using handmade glue and pitch. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Women work to seal cracks in a ship’s hull using handmade glue and pitch.

Everywhere there was movement. Those who weren’t patching holes applied copious amounts of glutinous resin between hull planks or used handheld saws to fashion replacement beams for wood that was too far gone to be salvaged. A group of what looked like the strongest men in the yard waded into the river to retrieve sunken logs, attaching them to a steel cable and heaving them ashore. All the while an extended family of dogs was circling the area, looking for shady places where they wouldn’t be stepped on and skittering nervously whenever a human drew too near.

With two photographers and a videographer combing the area for interesting visuals, it required constant situational awareness to ensure that I didn’t accidentally include Pablo’s shaved head or Gareth’s tattooed arms in my frames. I’m sure they were both having similar difficulties, and without a doubt more than one curse was directed my way as I stumbled unwittingly into their frames.

Workers move to their stations before work starts in the early morning. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Workers move to their stations before work starts in the early morning.

A worker winches a length of steel cable in an attempt to pull a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A worker winches a length of steel cable in an attempt to pull a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong.

Workers haul on a length of steel cable, attempting to salvage a piece of submerged lumber from the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers haul on a length of steel cable, attempting to salvage a piece of submerged lumber from the Mekong.

Workers prepare to attempt to salavge a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers prepare to attempt to salavge a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong.

Engines of Commerce

“Water is water,” Muoi said blandly, clearly not thinking much of my question. The sun had risen nearly to its apex, and the with light far too harsh for aesthetically pleasing colour photography, I had attempted to draw him into a conversation about the Mekong’s importance. “Everyone needs it for different reasons, but we all need it,” he concluded.

Though Muoi’s answer was not the emotional statement of love for the Mekong we had hoped for, he had gotten to the heart of the matter. While people in this part of Vietnam used the river in different ways – such as the coconut farming or shrimp ponds we had seen visited earlier – everyone relied on it in one way or the other.

Workers repair the floor of a ship's cargo hold. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers repair the floor of a ship’s cargo hold.

Ben Tre lacked a major port facility and so river boats, such as the ones being refitted at Muoi’s shipyard, were the only economically viable way for people in the area to send their products into the markets beyond. These lumbering ships were so important that at least seven other facilities of comparable size operated year-round to keep the flow of commerce moving. For Muoi and the twenty other family members employed in the yard, their livelihoods were no less tied to the Mekong than the delta’s rice farmers.

Different reasons, needed by all. Without meaning to, Muoi had summed up our entire journeys on the Mekong to date.

As we shook hands with Muoi, who was doubtlessly happy to see us leave and get out of his workers’ way, an Indian Myna bird (a species known for their ability to mimic spoken language) squawked at us from his hanging cage.

Cam On, Cam On. Thank you, Thank you.

———-

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , , |

How to Recycle a Coconut

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Workers separate coconut husk fibres and leave the to dry in the sun.

The engine had been making odd noises for roughly twenty minutes before the smoke appeared. We had been chugging against the current of the Mekong for more than an hour, trying to reach a family-owned shipyard in the maze like network of canals surrounding the city of My Tho, and it finally seemed like the boat’s aging motor had given up.

Founded in the 17th Century by Chinese refugees fleeing civil war on the mainland, My Tho was once considered the principle gateway to the Mekong delta before losing the title to the much larger and economically more important Can Tho. We had come to My Tho looking for our first insight as to how the river affected people’s lives in an urban context, but after a cursory glance we decided instead to charter a boat to explore the waterways surrounding the city. If ever there was a city symbiotically bound to a waterway, My Tho was it.

Happy Accidents

When the boat gave its first signs of ill-health we were well away from the city. First, the water pump quit. The brown, sediment-rich river water slowly seeped into the engine compartment, hissing to a boil as it made contact with the overworked pistons. Acrid yellowish steam issued from the cracks in the floorboards covering the machinery, first in small spurts, and then in great billowing clouds.

The the engine finally failed, leaving us drifting in circles on the Mekong outside the city of Ben Tre.

The the engine finally failed, leaving us drifting in circles on the Mekong outside the city of Ben Tre.

The boat driver, who had seemed mostly unfazed by the mechanical difficulties to that point suddenly sprang into action. Killing the throttle, we drifted in lazy circles while he ran back and forth between bow and stern, checking cables and connections. The ship building yard we were attempting to reach that day was still out of sight upriver and it appeared unlikely that we would be able to fight the current to reach it.

After conferring with Gareth and Pablo, we made the frustrating decision to turn back, hoping to stumble upon something of interest on our way back to My Tho. We had passed a series of what looked like coconut processing facilities earlier that morning and we hoped that by working with the river’s flow, instead of against it, we could coax the struggling engine into cooperation.

Luckily, as is so often the case with in photography and travel, the unraveling of our initial plans led us to a story we likely would never have found otherwise.

Coconuts, Reimagined

Coconut Island, as locals colloquially referred to My Thanh An, was not actually an island at all. In fact it barely qualified as a peninsula. But none of us could dispute the inclusion of coconut in the name; what seemed like millions of the green husked drupes (the proper classificatory family for coconuts, according to Internet biologists anyways) were mounded along the river’s edges to staggering heights.

Factory workers load processed coconut mulch onto a cargo vessle which will transport the material along the Mekong river to both foreign and domestic markets. Coconuts are one of the biggest industries near the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Factory workers load processed coconut mulch onto a cargo vessle which will transport the material along the Mekong river to both foreign and domestic markets.

With an abundance of choice as to where to stop, we simply pointed towards one facility at random and asked the boat driver to drop us off. As we approached it was immediately clear that the facility was not built to receive tiny boats like ours, and as a result there was no clear way for us to clamber up the four metre tall cement pad that separated the land from water. Instead we had to awkwardly climb onto a waiting cargo ship, shimmy precariously around its gunnels, and cross a thin, wobbling plank to the shore. While it is often said that the photographer’s dream is to be invisible, at that moment we were anything but. Roughly thirty workers had stopped what they were doing to watch, and I suspected that at least a few of them were hoping for one of us, laden with cameras as we were, to stumble sideways into the water below.

Ultimately our steps were sure and we made it safely to firm ground, all eyes now turned towards us, wondering what on earth we wanted. Mi, our perpetually hard working translator, quickly located the operation’s manager who indicated, with a dismissive wave of his hand, that we were free to do what we wanted. The main obstacle now overcome, we were able to finally take in the scene around us.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Contrary to what we were expecting, there were in fact no whole coconuts anywhere on site; only the husks remained, piled densely on top of each other. Teams of sweating men endlessly loaded them into wire baskets, and after hoisting them onto their shoulders, carried them twenty metres over lumpy ground before dumping them into a blue steel hopper. Yet more men waited there, using pieces of scrap lumber to force the husks into the machine below where, judging from the metallic screeching noises and continual geysers of woody shavings that issued from its bowels, they were ground into fibre.

Out one end of the machine a conveyor belt carried the finer of the processed particles towards men who guided the material into cement bags, filling the fifty kilogram sacks at the rate of one every five minutes. The more substantial strands of husk travelled in the opposite direction, into a spinning steel-mesh tumbler, set at a thirty degree angle to the ground. When enough of the rough hairs built up inside the cylinder an aged looking woman, hidden under a conical hat and face mask, reached inside and pulled enormous fluffy clumps out with her cotton-gloved hands. After just fifteen minutes of being near the machinery my ankles and wrists were chaffed terribly against my shirt and socks, itching like fibreglass.

Workers feed coconut husks into a grinding machine. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Workers feed coconut husks into a grinding machine.

A worker supervises a tumbling machine that separates any debris from coconut husk fibres. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker supervises a tumbling machine that separates any debris from coconut husk fibres.

Pairs of women arrived every few minutes with a cloth stretcher, onto which they piled an impressive quantity of the shredded husks before carrying it to a nearby concrete courtyard, at least a hectare in size. There, dozens more women, all identically clad in long sleeved shirts, face masks, and the ubiquitous Vietnamese conical hats, were hunched over as they separated the wiry strands with their hands. As visually interesting as the operation was, we still had no idea what we were looking at.

It wasn’t until we located the 57-year-old owner of the plant, Nau, that we were able to fully understand. A squat, friendly woman, Nau explained that this was relatively new method of coconut recycling. While the technology had certainly been long since available, it wasn’t until the mid 2000’s that the process became commercially viable – mostly owing to an massive increase in demand for flowers in China. The fine dust we had seen stuffed into sacks was loaded onto boats and shipped down the Mekong to distribution centres, which then exported the material internationally as a cheap plant mulch. The longer strands were either woven into mats or used to insulate soundproof walls in recording studios and karaoke bars.

A worker drives a tractor over drying coconut husks to separate them. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker drives a tractor over drying coconut husks to separate them.

A worker stands in front of a field of drying coconut husk fibres. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker stands in front of a field of drying coconut husk fibres.

Though perhaps not revolutionary technology, it was nevertheless a clever commercial (and environmental) innovation. A decade earlier, Nau told us, these coconuts would have been considered useless and burned to ashes. Now, the factory employed nearly a hundred people from the island, providing a clean and cheap product for both domestic and foreign markets.

In a single day more than 120 000 hollowed coconuts could be converted into a useful commodity, where before there was only waste. With the region’s coconuts being almost exclusively watered by the Mekong, and all incoming and outgoing shipping conducted by boat along the river, in a very real way flowers on a family table in Shanghai or Kunming might owe their existence to the Mekong.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we retraced our steps across the gangplank and scuttled awkwardly back onto our boat. The engine seemingly recovered we motored back towards the city. From the brink of disasters we had salvaged a fine morning of shooting, and furthered our appreciation of just how far reaching the Mekong’s influence could be.

A factory worker moves a bail of coconut husk fibres through a storage building. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A factory worker moves a bail of coconut husk fibres through a storage building.

————

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , , |

Child Labor in Bangladesh: Auto Worker

A young boy repairs a car engine in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

With Ramadan (the biggest religious Muslim holiday) in full swing, the traffic has evolved from the ordinarily terrible to utter insanity. The newspaper announces dozens of new dead daily, killed in bus and rickshaw crashes. Two photographer friends of mine who are in the city now witnessed the unceremonious dumping of a 16-year-old boy’s corpse into a garbage pile in Old Dhaka yesterday, the result of a motorcycle taxi accident. Commuting to and from shooting sites has been predictably stressful.

I found this auto repair shop on a side street near the train station, staffed almost completely with child workers. He looked to be about 7 years old, yet he seemed more competent in engine maintenance that I will likely ever be.

This is part of a larger project on Child Labour in Bangladesh.

Posted in Bangladesh, Blog Also tagged , , , |