The Hindu – Corruption and poor law enforcement set death traps for Alang workers

(Written by Rahi Gaikwad)

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18 August 2014 - The Centre is mulling amendments to labour laws with a view to provide a safe working environment to workers. The move may have little impact on the hazardous working conditions of workers at the Alang-Sosiya ship recycling yard — the largest in the world — where the continuing cycle of death points to poor implementation of safety laws.

On an average, 10 workers have died annually in the past decade at Alang. In June, in what officials deemed an unprecedented incident, five workers died in a gas explosion on the chemical tanker MV Perin. The mortality count for the first six months of 2014 has already touched 13, as per official data.

Bad practices

Improper cleaning is among the main reasons for accidents, besides falling of iron and steel plates, snapping of rods and bursting of cutters during the dismantling process. Ship-breakers, eager to make the most of a thriving multi-core industry, have shrunk timelines for dismantling ships, say workers.

“Earlier, cutting a ship would take about six months. Now it’s done in one and a half months,” says a gas cutter.

Industry insiders suggest the nexus between officials and ship breakers routinely subverts safety regulations, jeopardising thousands of lives. As per law, before any ship enters Alang, it needs desk clearance mainly from three agencies — the Customs, Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) and the Gujarat Maritime Board.

Clearances on sale

“For Rs. 3 lakh, you can get all the three clearances in half an hour — Rs. 1 lakh per agency,” reveals a source closely associated with the ship breaking activity.

Police sources too concede, “GMB, GPCB ‘ka sab setting pe hota hai’ [everything is fixed].”

The ship breaking process primarily involves the activity of gas cutting also known as hot cutting, in which workers use a flame torch fuelled by LPG and oxygen cylinders to cut parts of the ship. Rules require ship breakers to clean the oil from the tank and make the vessel gas-free.

Oil pipelines, on the other hand, have to be cleaned by opening the nuts and bolts, and not by hot cutting. Only after these steps are complete, permissions for cutting are given. Alang has witnessed accidents where workers were performing hot cutting on oil pipelines.

Referring to the death of workers in 2012 during the cutting procedure, the Minutes of the 16th meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) on ship breaking held in Gandhinagar on October 1, 2013 state: “The IMC was informed that the accident at plot No. 82, killing seven persons occurred due to presence of oil and its vapour in the pipeline of the ship… DISH [Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health] has revoked the competency certificate of the person who issued the certificate. The office of Deputy Director, [DISH], Alang, has issued prohibitory order under Section 40 (2) of the Factories Act to prohibit ship breaking till oil in the pipeline is completely cleaned and a certificate is obtained from the competent person.” (Sourced from letters by Gopal Krishna of the NGO ToxicsWatch Alliance to the National Human Rights Commission)

Safety hurdles

Ironically, when such incidents happen, investigators have to fall back on the expertise of the authorities who in turn could be under the scanner. In the case of MV Perin, for instance, the regulatory bodies conducted their own investigations while the police probed likely negligence on their part.

“Everywhere you will see the slogan ‘safety is our motto’, but it is just a photo [for show],” remarks a gas cutter from Uttar Pradesh.

Following the Supreme Court’s order, backed by a long struggle, the Steel Ministry issued the Ship Breaking Code 2013, covering all aspects of the recycling activity, including worker safety. GMB officials and ship breakers’ associations affirm that the Code is being followed, but workers claim it remains only on paper.

“Guidelines broken”

“The Code is not being implemented. The ship breakers had opposed it in the past. Moreover, the GMB’s guidelines are not a statutory act, attracting no punitive measures in the court of law,” says Geetanjoy Sahu, assistant professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Lack of proper training to workers is also a cause for concern. For a life-threatening job, workers undergo only a three-day training programme every few months, which involves watching a training video.

“I know this job is risky, but have to do it for survival. I am working at Alang since 1998 and have seen many an accident. This time I saw my co-workers die,” says 33-year-old Firoze Sheikh, injured in the Perin accident.

Workers clock a 12-hour shift that begins at 7 a.m. and includes tea and lunch breaks. Those on the ground or field get around Rs. 300/day while those working on the ship make Rs. 350/day. Helpers make half the amount. Wages fluctuate depending on the strength of worker population. In the summers, when most workers head home, wages see a brief hike. The lack of access to clean water means they cough up Rs. 50 a day on buying it.

With no job security and the absence of a strong forum that take up their grievances, workers are at the mercy of their employer. Many do not belong to any union.

As per IMC, the yard provides employment to around 50,000 people directly and a larger population indirectly, annually producing 3.5 million tonne of re-rollable steel.