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Pakistan: Hazardous conditions for workers at Gadani ship breaking yard

by Aroosa Masroor, 25 April 2009

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The News

Gadani yard turns into death trap for hapless workers

KARACHI: Seemingly unaware of the high health risks involved in his job, 21-year-old Muhammad Saleem, a welder at the Gadani ship-breaking yard, prefers to do his job and not ask too many questions.

But there are many who cannot continue to ignore the string of deaths at the Gadani ship breaking yard, an important source of raw material for the steel making industries of Karachi and beyond.

Over the past two months, four men have died working in the death traps some of these ships become, given the lack of proper safety measures and the glaring absence of safety tools and equipment for workers.

Saleem and hundreds like him, say they have no choice but to work in the present hazardous conditions to provide for their families. But there is a wave of anger and resentment that is rising among many others who say that their desperation is being exploited.

It is ironic that when the ship-breaking industry itself is experiencing a boom, the workers who toil and take apart these hulls are seeing their conditions of work worsen. From a state of near closure, the industry has bounced back since December 2008, and is now buzzing with activity.

This is the consequence of a drop in ship prices enabling Pakistani ship-breakers to purchase much more in the international market. But the good fortune is not seeping down to the workers.

The employment the industry has generated in the past few months has attracted workers from as far as Swat, where troubled conditions have meant that these men have fled and looked for work elsewhere. However, many feel that they have taken on more than what they bargained for. The deaths and injuries are growing but there is no system in place to avoid such accidents and tend to those who suffer as a consequence.

The labourers went on a six-day strike in February demanding better work conditions but despite the signing of an agreement between the Pakistan Ship-breakers Association Gadani and Ship-breaking Labour Union Gadani, in which the ship breakers promised to provide the workers with the necessary safety gear, it has not been implemented. And the death toll from work related injuries keeps on rising.

“The labourers united under the Mazdoor Ittehad Tanzeem and went on a six-day strike until their four basic demands were accepted,” informed Basheer Ahmed Mehmoodani, an activist of the Balochistan National Party (BNP) supporting the Mazdoor Ittehad Tanzeem. The demands included an increase in wages, payment of salaries on time, provision of an ambulance service and basic health unit and safety equipment for all, he added.

“The chairman signed the agreement on February 14, 2008 [which will be valid till June 2010] and agreed that occupational safety should be a priority, but it has been almost two months and the labourers haven’t received any safety equipment. In fact, one of the three workers died soon after February 14 when he slipped off a ship from a great height.” The fourth worker died earlier this month, he added.

Mehmoodani said that while a 40 per cent increase in wage has been implemented, other demands have been conveniently ignored. During a visit to the area, workers also informed The News that the increase in wage has not helped much as prices of other commodities in the area also rose. So much so, that the price of roti in the area shot up to Rs12.

“We wanted a raise due to rising inflation, but the minute shopkeepers in the nearby market in Gadani learn about our wage raise, they increase the price of their supplies too so it does not make much of a difference. There is no authority to check this practice,” complained one.

However, more than money, they insist on safety measures that would help reduce the risk workers are exposed to during the crude ship-breaking process. “We don’t have proper goggles, gloves, helmets, masks or safety boots. Some don’t have any kind of boots and end up working in slippers,” disclosed Saleem.

Considering the fact that the ship-breaking yard is a full fledged factory, under Chapter 3 of the Factories Act 1934 (later amended in 1997), the factory management is bound to provide workers with Personal Protection Equipments (PPEs) and ensure that workers are not exposed to dangers which cause health injuries, but unfortunately this is not happening.

“They are violating the basic law by exposing workers to hazardous working conditions. The management should have taken preventive measures so the deaths could have been avoided,” commented Zulfiqar Shah, Senior Research Associate at PILER (Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research).

Section 33 K and L of the act clearly states that in any factory ‘no person shall enter a space in which dangerous fumes or chemicals are present and factories must take preventive measures to avoid explosives’, he added.

There are a total of 127 plots in the ship-breaking yard with approximately 40 workers employed on each, but as far as safety aspects are concerned, no standards are observed either by workers or by plot management. Many die each year as they face hazards such as fire explosions, danger of falling from great heights, exposure to asbestos, heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Moreover, due to the absence of any medical facility for labourers in the area, workers sometimes have to be taken to a hospital in Karachi which is nearly 70 kilometers away from the Gadani ship-breaking yard. “There is no ambulance service in the area either. Even the Edhi ambulance takes a while to get here,” added Mehmoodani.

“Ship breaking work is hazardous which is why workers insist on occupational safety on being a priority,” 30-year-old Tahir Shah says from his experience in Gadani. He was recently banned by the local administration after his role in the workers strike. He has now moved to Karachi and is currently employed as a daily-wage earner. But considering the 11 years he spent in Gadani, after moving from the NWFP in 1997, he is well aware of the problems workers face.

The main issue, he feels, is the lack of representation of labourers in trade unions. There is a union called the “pocket” union, which has been put into place by the ship-breakers themselves and comprises their loyal employees.

A category of worker called the “Jamadar” who works as the man responsible for keeping the local workforce in check is also part of the official union. By and large, there is no true representation of the labourers. “Since the industry is dependent on manual labour and requires a specific set of skills than formal education, it is a major source of employment for the uneducated,” said Mehmoodani. Most workers cant read and write, and are unaware of their rights.

It is for the same reason concerned authorities continue to turn a blind eye to the workers’ problems. This can be observed from the poor living conditions in the area where houses are built from materials salvaged from the scrapped ships and labourers lack basic facilities such as potable water and sanitation. But as workers are busy battling for occupational safety at this point, the demand for better housing is not their priority, they say.

However, with the support of the BNP, a local party, the Pukhtoons, who make up 70 per cent of the workforce, say they are more hopeful. “The Baloch comprise only 5 per cent of the workforce, but when it comes to the unity of mazdoors (labourers) and demand for labour rights, our ethnic differences carry no weight,” added the BNP activist.