Tradewinds – Poor safety record tarnishes Pakistan

(Written by Geoff Garfield)

9 March 2012 – But recyling is still a beacon of success in a nation that has a lot on its plate.

Deaths and injuries among workers tearing apart ships means Pakistan, as with Bangladesh, has a long, uphill struggle to improve its image. Standards of health and safety there would not be tolerated in Europe but have remained much the same for years. Media coverage in Pakistan recently talked about 15,000 workers risking their lives every day dismantling ships at Gaddani beach.

It is claimed that dozens died last year at Gaddani and, according to Nasir Mansoor of the National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan, the shipbreaking companies are not using their profits to protect the workers. The last year has witnessed many deaths also in Bangladesh — although there, coupled with legal action by environmentalists, it has spurred the courts to demand improvements.

In Pakistan the issue is overshadowed by the ongoing war against terror and a belief that the government is unlikely to clamp down on yard conditions because ship recycling is a beacon of success in a country struggling financially.

Last year, Pakistan imported in the form of scrap ships almost one million tonnes of steel and expects to exceed this in 2012. The steel is sold to mills where it meets around two-thirds of their requirements. Most recently, during February, Pakistan lagged far behind its Indian subcontinent neighbours by importing just seven vessels, although three of them were VLCCs.

Asif Ali Khan of the Pakistan Ship Breakers’ Association told TradeWinds: “The recyclers fully understand their responsibilities on this matter as it is in their own individual and national interest to spend time, effort and monies within their resources towards creating better working conditions.” He says many yards in Pakistan have internal improvement programmes covering health and safety, as well as environmental matters.

The government is also in the process of creating landfill sites and waste-disposal facilities close to Gaddani, a 10-kilometre (6.25- mile) beach on the Arabian Sea coast, Khan adds. Relevant government departments are being urged to speed up the changes but they “move at their own speed”. Khan says he believes the government will ratify the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (HKC).

But a final decision is only expected after consultation with the breakers, evaluating what he describes as “our internal housekeeping”, and having weighed up India and Bangladesh’s position vis-a-vis the convention. Khan concluded, however: “Pakistan will go along with the international community, as always.”

Meanwhile, he points to a World Bank report that showed Pakistani recyclers are less profitable than those in Bangladesh and India because of, he claims, higher wages and operating costs. On the plus side, says Khan, the country’s banks are supporting recyclers and are normally willing to issue sight letters of credit.