Pakistan Today – Ship-breaking industry: a closer look

(Written by Faez Shakil)

26 August 2011< - Murad’s shalwar was old, greasy and torn. It might have once been white, or it might have been brown from the start; under the oil stains it was difficult to tell. A heavily lined face jutted out on a well-built neck. It was a face burned brown by the sun; from which all excess fat had been stripped away to leave only angles and planes. Hands as brown as the sand underfoot were attached to long, lean arms packed with real work-muscle. This was a man who had lived by hard physical labour his entire life. His much scarred torso was as sun burnt as the rest of him and his lean physique was noticeably the result of insufficient nutrition rather than a fitness regimen. The most remarkable thing about this man of around 30 was his feet, one of which was clearly missing. This man was a relative of our driver. He was a labourer from Gadani who wanted legal advice after suffering from an accident while on the job a few months ago. His business was ship-breaking, and it was while cutting out scrap steel from an old ship that an iron beam had fallen on his foot, crushing it beyond repair and forcing amputation. While his medical expenses had been paid by the ship-breaking company he worked for, he had lost his means of livelihood, and now, having to support a family with 7 children, he came to my father to look for avenues to compensation. Historical perspective The ship-breaking industry has a long and not-quite-illustrious history. Long ago, when shipping-lines were the arteries of world commerce, there were myriad opportunities for the less scrupulous amongst us to profit from the seas. Pirates, of course, are the one such example of downright nastiness. These parasites of the seas have been romanticised and immortalised in human memory by now, with a popular internet meme from last year pitting pirates against ninjas in all manner of inane tasks. Perhaps the reason for the notoriety of pirates is the fact that they are, other than in Somalia, extinct. They, unlike so many of their ilk, were not converted by the forces of capitalism into a legitimate business venture. Speaking of other immoral devils from the middle-ages and beyond who later got civilised, Ship-wrecking used to be a very profitable form of banditry up until the 19th century. Besides the usual opportunistic looting from naturally wrecked ships, enterprising individuals would often use nefariously placed lighthouses to drive desperate sea-vessels directly on to dangerous rocks, after which they would kill the crew and take apart said vessels to salvage every joint of wood that could possibly turn a profit. With the advent of the industrial age, ship-builders started using more durable materials to construct the behemoths that roamed the open oceans. Metals were now the predominant ingredient in ship-building, and as every recycling fanatic amongst us knows, metals are a finite resource. With this paradigm shift, the industry of ship-breaking was born, converting the aforementioned immoral devils into upstanding, hard-working citizens of the civilised world. Now instead of having to trick ships into wrecking themselves, all the enterprising individual had to do was to find a job in one of the great ship-breaking yards of Europe’s coastal cities. Sure, the profits fell, but there was job safety and no need to murder, and so the industry flourished. That was Europe in the 19th century. Slowly, as that part of the world progressed into the realm of labour-laws and environmental protection, the harsh industry of ship-breaking found a new home. With the immense amount of labor it required and the damage it caused to the environment, South Asia was the perfect haven for the still-profitable occupation. The hungry, unemployed millions and the complete lack of potentially hampering legislation made India, Bangladesh and Pakistan the premier ship-breaking countries in the world. The mechanics of ship-breaking have remained more or less constant over the years. First, the ship that is to be dismantled is run aground on a stretch of beach. Then workers swarm over it and take it apart piece by piece, salvaging a vast quantity of iron and steel in the process, along with various other valuable materials. For this operation, a natural harbor is a true blessing, as it allows vessels of any size to approach and be grounded with ease. The industry in Pakistan The Pakistani ship-breaking industry is for this very reason situated mainly in Gadani, Balochistan, about 50 kilometers away from Karachi. A 10 kilometers long beachfront here plays host to as many old and tired ships as need be, as long as said need is below 125 ships. In its hey-day, this yard provided direct employment to around 30,000 people and was the largest ship-breaking operation in the world. From 1969 to 1983, Gadani was in the prime of its life. In the 80’s, it produced a million tonnes of scrap metal each year, thus fueling the Pakistani steel industry like nothing else. During this time, the Pakistani government, for once, showed good business sense and did all it could to help the development of the industry. Infrastructure was developed, import duties were lessened, and the National Ship-Breakers’ Association was given a voice. The effect of all this was a minor economic boom for the province of Balochistan, as the Balochistan Development Authority leased the Beachfront in Gadani out to the ship-breakers on a case-by-case basis and extracted revenue according to the tonnage of the ship being broken. This source of revenue for the impoverished province continues well into the present day, even after the operations at Gadani have slowed down significantly. This slowing down started in the late 80s, as taxation and import duties grew and competition from yards in Bangladesh and India leeched off business. The deprecation went on till 2001, when the total scrap metal produced at the yard was a mere 160,000 tonnes, down from the millions of the previous decades. Resurgence did come about at the start of the 2000s though, as taxation on ship-breaking was cut down to 10 per cent from 15 per cent. Growth has been noticeable over the last few years especially, with the 2009-2010 fiscal year being one of the most successful in recent history. A record 107 ships were broken during this year at Gadani, an all time high for the yard. Environmental and occupational hazards Despite the economic success the business has brought about in Pakistan, the factors that caused First-World countries to abandon this practice are still very much existent. Economic and occupational hazards are a dime a dozen and they are progressively getting worse. US Department of Labour Occupational Safety and Health Administration worksheet from 2001 divides the dangers associated with ship-breaking into three categories: Hazardous Exposures, Hazardous Work Activities and Hazardous Work Conditions. Hazardous exposures are one of the main environmental issues associated with the industry. Poisonous substances such as Asbestos and Lead are common on ships from even a few years ago and are given no importance by either our government or the Ship-breakers’ Association. Other more commonplace dangers such as excessive noise levels and fire are not considered dangers at all. Hazardous work activities include what our friend Murad met with. Welding out huge pieces of metal in almost absolute darkness sounds dangerous, and indeed, it is. Ships are huge, some are larger than sky-scrapers. Working manually on such gigantic structures near the sea means dangers from both height and depth. Pakistani workers have the added disadvantage of not possessing any safety equipment at all. These conditions are hazardous in every way. Murad makes a re-entry into the story here. A complete lack of labour compensation laws meant that he did not have a legal base to sue his employers, who had already been unusually generous (by Pakistani standards) in taking care of his medical expenses. He was to leave my father’s office disappointed. Following up with him later I discovered that the eldest of his 4 sons was now in the ship-breaking business, taking up from where his father had been forced to leave off. In a country riddled with unemployment and hunger, Murad was glad to have found a means of subsistence for his son, even though he was well-aware of the possible dangers. Vital yet fatal A spate of similar incidents in 2010 forced thousands of ship-breakers from over 40 different companies to go on a 6 day strike last year. With over 17 on-the-job causalities in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the largest of the labor unions all united to demand reasonable work hours, safer work conditions and modern safety equipment, along with more reasonable wages (Ship-breaking is a minimum wage job; it barely pays Rs6000-7000 per month). Unfortunately, the strike paid few dividends; agreements were made but nothing was implemented, and so conditions remain as bad as ever. This purpose of this article was to shed light on the business of ship-breaking. It is a business that is important to the economy of Pakistan yet so dangerous that it is almost a crime to employ people for it. The long-term effects of the hazardous exposures haven’t ever been documented, and no one knows what amount of damage they’ve caused to the people of Gadani. It really is like being caught between a rock and a hard place, and for as long as feeds the mouths of the hungry, the remoter dangers shall be overlooked. What is important though is that labor protection and compensation laws need to be strengthened in Pakistan, and this occupation needs to be made as safe as possible, so that tragedies such as Murad’s do not occur as often as they now do.