The Express Tribune – Gadani: Ship-breaker’s paradise and a worker’s worst nightmare

(Written by Salman Siddiqui)

2 July 2012 - It is hard to believe Gul Rehman who says he has been working at the Gadani ship-breaking yard since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s reign in the 70s. Not because one may doubt his 39 year work experience, but because of the smile he continues to display despite the backbreaking work the 55-year old emigrant from Peshawar has to do.

Even more surprising is the fact that Rehman’s 20-year old son Habib joined him in his line of work. “I wanted him to study and be a big man, but he just wouldn’t listen,” says Rehman.

“I find studying harder than this work,” retorts Habib from behind his father’s back. He already has six years of experience as a welder under his belt.

It is also difficult to believe young men like Farhad, whose green eyes shine out from behind layers of grime, when they say they hail from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Normally, men from the northern provinces are known for fair skin and coloured hair. But here, in this coastal graveyard for ships, their faces are tarred with oil and grime from vessels that arrive here to be dismembered.

Even the chests of these labourers are burnt red by the heat of the gas-cutter’s flame used to break the vessels apart. Their hands are swollen, and many have tiny metal fragments firmly embedded in their skin.

In these conditions, an estimated 10,000 labourers work at one of the largest ship-breaking yards in the world located at Gadani, which ranks third only after Bangladesh and India.

About 70% of these workers: which include the helpers, welders, crane operators, cleaners and the ‘jamadars’ (vernacular for a labourer in charge): hail from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The rest come from the Seraiki belt in Punjab and Balochistan. A small number of Bengalis also earn their keep here.

From the yard to the factories

The ship-breaking yard at Gadani began operations in 1973 and is divided into 127 large plots owned by 40 business concerns. Ship-breakers buy old vessels from international markets and dismantle them for steel, which is sold to local factories throughout the country.

Since July last year, more than 105 ships totalling 1,304,500 tons in weight have arrived at the yard to be dismantled.

According to Pakistan Ship-Breakers Association Chairman Deewan Rizwan, ship-breaking is a multibillion rupee industry that directly or indirectly employs hundreds of thousands of people. “This year, the industry paid Rs4 billion in sales taxes alone,” he claims.

Toughest job

Talayman, a steel cutter who hails from Swat, describes his work in the following way: “It takes a decade to build a large vessel, while it takes us just three months to cut it apart. You can imagine the kind of hard work we have to do.”

It is arguably one of the toughest jobs in the country. Labourers tear down 40,000 ton ships piece by piece without safety equipment such as helmets, gloves, belts or fire-resisting clothing.

They work in an environment where electricity, clean drinking water, and basic human necessities such as washrooms are unavailable.

After a rough day, the workforce returns to small huts that serve as their quarters. Many can’t afford shelter and sleep under the open sky.

Over the last 10 months, at least 10 labourers have died. More than 20 have suffered serious injuries over the same period.

Shipbreakers Democratic Workers Union President Bashir Ahmed says some of these accidents happened when a staircase in a vessel collapsed. Some died when they slipped off a high-rise deck. There have been quite a few cases when noxious gases trapped in the ship took the lives of labourers.

Union workers such as Bashir have been working with workers to increase awareness of their rights. They apply pressure on ship owners to provide better wages and working conditions. Currently, they are asking owners to give food to workers, instead of forcing the latter to buy it from their meagre salaries.

However, Shipbreakers Association’s Deewan says that the industry pays billions of rupees in taxes to the government and the Balochistan Development Authority, whose job it is to provide better infrastructure and facilities in the area. “We do what we can to help our workers. But we all suffer when there is no electricity or water,” he says.

Long way from home

Most daily wage workers do not visit their families for months. Their leisure time is spent on drugs, such as hashish, or listening to music on someone’s mobile phone.

Youngster Farhad says he wishes to go back soon to meet his beloved. He is disgusted with the conditions he lives in and fears that she might run away when she meets him.

Sabir Hussain, 60, who hails from Gujrat, hasn’t been home for eight years. When asked whether he has children he says: “I didn’t marry because of poverty.”

He has saved up around Rs400,000 for himself, which he says he will use when he grows ‘old’ and has no work.

When asked if he isn’t already too old to work at a place like Gadani, he just smiles and carries on with his work.