28 December, 2016In an industry characterized by danger and exploitation, only the desperate risk their lives working in the shipbreaking yards of Pakistan.
Babul Khan sits in his home of two small huts a broken man. On 1 November 2016, his sons, 18-year-old Ghulam Hyder and 32-year-old Alam Khan, were helping to dismantle an oil tanker at the Gadani shipbreaking yard in Pakistan when it was blown apart in an enormous explosion. A raging fire ensued and swept through the vessel taking two days to burn itself out.
Alam and his brother Ghulam had been draining oil from one of the ship’s tanks with a bucket when they were caught in the blast. Alam was admitted to hospital with 100 per cent burns to his body. In his final agonizing hours he thanked the fishermen who rescued him and his co-workers from the sea. His brother Ghulam burnt to death in the ship.
“The death of my sons feels like my both arms have been broken," says Khan. Ghulam and Alam, who had a son, were the sole providers for the family of seven that lives in the village of Gadani Morr.
Eighteen-year-old Noor Bux was another worker from the same village to perish in the oil tanker inferno. He was the only breadwinner for a family of ten. His mother Zaloo cries as she looks at his identity photo card. "I feel angry and shattered, I feel so much pain and no one is helping me," she cries.
Official figures put the death toll at 28 in the disaster at Gadani, which is the world’s third largest shipbreaking yard. Four people are missing and more than forty have been injured. But no one knows for sure how many workers were on board the ship at the time of the incident.
The night before the explosion, 24-year-old Sherdade went to the Gadani yard with other workers from his village. In the morning, his family heard about the fire and rushed to the site but they couldn’t find him. They searched hospitals in four different cities, they scoured local mortuaries and made enquiries with other workers, but they found no trace of him.
"We are angry. The government should help us find his whereabouts; at least they should find his body. We shall not believe he has died until we get his body," says his mother Allah Dini.
Lowest standards of all
In an industry that is considered the most dangerous in the world, the Gadani shipbreaking yard is the worst of the worst. It employs around 12,000 workers none of whom are registered. Despite its size, there are no residential colonies for the workers at Gadani. Many live in small makeshift huts put together with scrap wood salvaged from ships. There are no toilet or washing facilities so they must relieve themselves outside and take a bath in the open air. Many workers have families but there are no schools. There is no running water so workers spend a large part of their meager wages on buying water from a tanker brought from afar. Or they fetch polluted water from wells that makes them sick.
Sixty-year-old Naseeb Gul has been working as a daily labourer at the shipbreaking yard since 2009 but is not on the official records at Gadani. When he works, he is paid PKR 750 (US$7) for an eight hour day, six days a week.
Gul is a member of the Gadani Shipbreaking Workers’ Union, which is affiliated to IndustriALL Global Union through the National Trade Union Federation Pakistan (NTUF). He says workers are denied safety equipment and must buy their work clothes, shoes and helmets out of their own pocket. "This is a very dangerous job and we are not paid enough for doing risky work. And there is no job security or safety, and working conditions are bad," he says.
Gul says shipbreaking workers are not given any training on how to work on the ship or explained how to carry out shipbreaking processes such as de-fuelling and removing gas.
Unlike shipbuilding, the shipbreaking industry is undergoing a boom and expected to triple in the next 25 years. But with the global price of steel currently so low, the temptation is for ship owners, brokers and breakers to go to the cheapest yards with the cheapest labour, to get the maximum return on their ships. The health and safety of workers, nor the environmental pollution caused by dangerous recycling practices, do not figure.
Aside from limited safety equipment and inadequate training, workers at shipbreaking yards face multiple risks, such as exposure to asbestos and other toxic substances, electrocution, burns, falling from the ship or being crushed under huge steel plates as the ships are dismantled.
It is no coincidence that most of the workers prepared to do the job at Gadani are from the poorest parts of Pakistan.
Following the fire, the Gadani yard was shut down for a month. It has reopened but working conditions are no better. The authorities in Pakistan have yet to reveal the findings of an initial investigation into the incident but workers say that welding had already begun on the ship before it had been drained of oil, sparking the massive explosion.
The NTUF is demanding that the findings of the investigation are made public and that those responsible are held accountable. They are calling for the Pakistan government to ratify the The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, and implement a shipbreaking code that meets international guidelines.
‘Kept as slaves’
Over the years, democratic trade unions’ attempts to improve conditions at the yard have come under continuous resistance; often they are deregistered for inexplicable reasons and union officials are dismissed. Nasir Mansoor, deputy general secretary of the NTUF, says shipbreaking yard owners and contractors instead registered a bogus workers’ union with the authorities, allowing them to continue exploiting labourers at the Gadani yard:
“The workers were forced to pay an extortion as fund monthly to this union and they were kept as slaves. Workers are deprived of all their rights such as safe working conditions, decent wages, social security, pensions, residence, safety equipment, and the right to form a democratic union in complete violation of labour laws in Pakistan.”
The government has approved PKR500,000 (US$4,700) for each family of the deceased workers while the shipbreaking owners’ association has announced that it will contribute another PKR1.3million (US$12,300) for each family. The NTUF is asking for double the amount, and demanding that injured workers should be given PKR500,000 (US$4,700) each in compensation.
Kan Matsuzaki, IndustriALL director for shipbuilding and shipbreaking says:
How many workers need to die before the authorities in Pakistan wake up to the appalling conditions in shipbreaking yards in the country? These workers’ safety and dignity are treated with utter contempt by the government and the entire shipbreaking industry. Pakistan must act urgently to improve safety and inspection of the shipbreaking yards. We urge the government to ratify the Hong Kong Convention as a starting point.
Eighteen-year-old Mir Hasan Gadani, suffered serious burns to both of his arms after being caught in the oil-tanker blast and thrown from the ship. But he is prepared to risk his life again:
I will go back to work because I have no other option. I am not literate and can't find another job, so even though it is dangerous, I have to go back.