Dawn – Workers at ship-breaking yards abandoned to their fate

(Written by Shazia Hasan)

16 July 2013 - GADDANI: Despite eight fatal accidents within a month, work at the ship-breaking industry at Gaddani goes on as usual. The labourers here, all daily wage earners, have witnessed so many accidents that they get confused when asked about the recent casualties involving two labourers who fell to their death.

“No, they were not two workers but three. And they didn’t fall but were burned to death,” said Sher Khan, a welder, while taking a breather in between his work. “You see, there was oil at the bottom of the ship that caught fire while they were working there,” the welder said.

Asked if they tried putting out the fire or if the fire department was called, Mr Khan said: “It was an oil fire that spreads rapidly. They had gone very quickly before any fire tender could arrive here.”

“There was only one welder who died and not three,” says another man working on separating the borders from an iron sheet. “That man, too, was separating an iron curtain in the ship with his blow torch and it separated suddenly from an odd angle and fell on him,” he added.

“I think you must be referring to the men who fell from the ladder,” Shahroze Khan hailing from Mardan interrupted him. He said the labourers, were named Yunus and Ashraf, and one of them was climbing up the ship on a monkey ladder when he slipped. “He fell on the other one working his way up at quite a distance below him and both fell into the ship’s hull into the oil and gas pocket that also has toxic chemicals. They didn’t survive,” he said.

“Ship breaking is dangerous work. Anything that involves working with heavy iron is dangerous. Still we work here day in and day out at Gaddani for money,” he said.

Asked if his family was worried or concerned about his working in such dangerous conditions, Shahroze Khan gave a short laugh. “All they are concerned about is the money that I make sure reaches them every month. I earn around Rs30,000 a month. Where else can an illiterate labourer like me make that kind of money?” he asked. “If this place is written as my place of earning I will keep on working here. If my end is also written here then it is my luck!” he remarked.

“Only the labourer who fills out clay pots and pitchers with water is safe from harm. All the other jobs here carry maximum risk,” said his supervisor, Mohammad Bashir, who hails from Gujranwala. He said he had been working at Gaddani for 35 years. “Look at me now. My hair has turned grey. When I first came here, I didn’t even have a moustache. But I learned the ropes here as time passed. The hardest and most risky work here is right there on the ship. That’s the real ship breaking. But accidents occur here on the ground as well. We are all vulnerable,” he said.

“Having worked here for several years, I happen to know how to carry out all kinds of laborious jobs,” said 50-year-old Allah Diya, another senior worker, who hails from Multan. “And we have to do as told. I was 16 when I first came here. And since then I have seen so many fatal accidents at Gaddani that I have lost count,” he said. “The good thing is that I make good money, of course. And that allows me to go home and spend time with my family after every four to five months,” he explained.

Mohammad Jawaid, a 25-year-old worker from Burewala, said that he had injured his foot last year. “A heavy metal piece fell on my foot. It wasn’t so bad I couldn’t work for several days,” he said.

Asked if he was given medical allowance or free medical treatment, Mr Jawaid said he wasn’t. “We are all daily wagers here. So there is no medical allowance. Still my boss is kind enough to not cut off my daily wage during the days I am recuperating due to an injury or illness. So I continue to receive my Rs506 a day,” he said.

About the labourers working at Gadani, he said that they were mostly from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “There are hardly any locals doing ship breaking. We are more skilled and hardworking,” he boasted.

Another worker at one of the ship-breaking yards, who declined giving his name, said that there was a hygiene and environment department of the government that was not doing its job at Gadani. “Before breaking a ship, people from the department are supposed to come here and check if the environment in the ship is fit for working. They need to see if the ship still has oil or if there are toxic gases accumulating there. There should be no blow torches where there is gas. But these people don’t even guide us about such things. Instead they come to see our employers for extortion. That done, they gave them a certificate to carry on with the work,” he said.

“And you would think that there should at least be hospitals or clinics … ambulances where there is so much risk to life, but there is only one old ambulance, which doesn’t even start sometimes, to cover all the ship-breaking yards at Gadani,” he added to his grievances.

Wages & welfare

Meanwhile, Musharraf Humayoun, finance secretary of the Ship-Breaking Labour Union, Gadani, said that accidents did happen at Gadani more than other places and that was why they had made sure that the families of the victims got maximum compensation.

“There have been eight deaths during the past month. These men are not permanent workers. There is no workers’ welfare fund for them. Yet someone has to take responsibility for the accidents. The usual compensation given by the government is Rs200,000 but in our case we have made it Rs300,000. And adding the death grant it amounts to Rs500,000,” he said.

The secretary also said that they had fought for and got implemented a 22 per cent increase in workers’ salaries. “As of July 1, 2013, the daily wage of the workers will range between Rs600 and Rs650,” he said.

On July 15, there were at least three workers arguing with their supervisor over payment of wages. They said that they were paid a collective amount of their daily wage after every 15 days, which their employer was avoiding to do on Monday. “Yes, they do get paid after every 15 days but delays also happen. Still if the employers are being too difficult, the workers can always report to us and then we intervene to get them their right,” he claimed.