Gadani: A ship breakers’ paradise and workers’ nightmare

The Gadani Ship Breaking Yard in Pakistan's restive Balochistan province hosts one of the most beautiful untouched beaches on earth where handsome men from the country's north come not to enjoy the waters but to blacken their skin through back-breaking hard labor. This is their story.
Gadani: When 55-year-old Gul Rehman says he has been working at the Gadani Ship breaking yard since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s reign in the 70s when he was just 16 years old, it is hard to believe him.
Not because one would have a doubt about his ‘39 year work experience.’ But because of the smile he continues to have despite the back breaking labour work the man from Peshawar continues to do.
Even more surprising is the fact that his 20 year old son Habib too has joined him in this hardcore line of work. “I wanted him to study and be a big man, but he just wouldn’t listen,” said Rehman.
“I find studying harder than this work,” said Habib behind his father’s back, who already has a six year work experience as a welder.
It is also hard to believe when young men like Farhad, whose green eyes shine under the scorching sun, say they hail from KhyberPakhtunkhwa.
Normally, the men from the northern province are known for their fair skin and light coloured hair. But here in this graveyard of ships, their faces are as dark as the black oil slick that is found on the vessels that come to be butchered.
Even the chests of these men are burnt red by the heat of the gas-cutter’s flame that are used to break apart a vessel, plate by plate. Their hands are swollen and many have tiny metal fragments entrenched in the skin.
This is the fate of an estimated 10,000 labour force at one of the largest ship breaking yards in the world at Gadani, which ranks third only after Bangladesh and India.
About 70 percent of these workers, which include the bottom of the line helper, welder, crane operator, cleaner and the ‘jamadar’ [the local term for a labour in charge] hail from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The rest come from Punjab’s Seraiki belt and Balochistan. A small number of Bengalis are also present.
From the yard to the factories
The Shipbreaking yard at Gadani that began operations back in 1973 is divided into 127 large plots that are owned by 40 big business concerns.
Some of these concerns include the Deewan and sons owned by Deewan Rizwan, Riaz Laljee of the Abbas Steel group, Malik Asif’s Meezan Ship Breaker, Aslam Jiwani’s Al Imran Ship Breakers and Hajji Sattar.
These ship breakers buy the old and often toxic vessels owned by foreign countries in Europe, US and Japan from the international market and dismantle the steel to sell it to the local factories throughout the country.
However, since the ships are bought using money borrowed by the banks, the ship breakers are under pressure to dismantle the ship as soon as possible so that they can save on the interest rate.
According to Pakistan Ship-Breakers Association chairman Deewan Rizwan, ship breaking is a multi billion rupee industry in the country that employs hundreds of thousands of people directly or indirectly.
“The industry paid Rs 4 billion in sales tax alone this year alone,” he said. He claimed that the steel which they produce is even better in quality than what is produced at Pakistan Steel mills.
Since July last year, more than 105 ships totaling 1,304,500 tons of weight have arrived at the yard to be dismantled.
After the ships are cut into pieces, the steel is supplied to factories all over the country, including Karachi and Lahore.
Karachi Iron and Steel Association president Shamoon Ali says Gadani ship breaking meets between 60 and 70 per cent steel demand of the country. “Pakistan needs at least seven million tons of steel annually,” he said.
Toughest job
Talayman, a steel cutter, from Swat described the work they do 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.
Imagine trying to tear down a 40,000 ton ship piece by piece without any safety measures such as helmets, gloves, belts or fire-resisting clothing in place.
That too in a working environment where electricity or clean drinking water is almost non existent. Basic human necessities such as a washroom are also unavailable.
After a rough day, the workforce live like dogs in small huts that serve as their quarters. Many can’t even afford a quarter and sleep under the open sky.
Many workers die due to these work conditions. Over the last 10 months, at least 10 labourers have died. More than 20 have suffered serious injuries over the same period.
The Shipbreakers Democratic Workers Union president Bashir Ahmed says some of these labourers died when the staircase in the vessel collapsed. Some when they slipped off the high rise deck. There have also been quite a few cases when toxic gases in the ship took their lives.
Union workers such as Bashir have been working hard to make the workers become aware of their rights and apply pressure on the ship owners to provide better wages and working conditions. Currently, they are asking the owners to give food to their workers instead of forcing them to buy it from their own meager salaries.
“At the moment there is just one poorly equipped small hospital in nearby Khairabad, where only one doctor sits,” Ahmed said.
Most of the seriously injured are rushed either to Hub city or Karachi. But in most cases they just succumb to their wounds and die.
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 said.
Daily wages
Shipbreakers such as Deewan say that the wages they offer is the best in the country comparable to the rates in Dubai.
On the face of it appears to be true. A helper is paid Rs 366 ($4) per day, while a welder can get as high as Rs 606 ($6.6) per day. The normal working hours are between 7am till 5pm. Any hours above are marked as overtime and extra due is paid to the worker.
However, Gul Rehman, pointed out that even though its true he got only Rs 15 when he started out in the 70s and today gets more than 600 rupees per day as a welder, “my purchasing power remains the same.”
In fact, a worker at Gadani is getting paid more or less the same amount that he got 32 years ago. In an article published at the New York Times on Gadani in the year 1980, the author Frank J Prial wrote that the ‘barefoot, turbaned workmen…[most of which were] the tough Pathan tribesmen from north west frontier province…earned between $3 and $7 a day,’ which is the same amount that a workers gets today.
At the moment, the Ship breakers are nervous about the upcoming budget since they fear an onslaught of new taxes.
Already, they say the government had increased the tax from Rs30 to Rs100 per ton on a ship. Deewan Rizwan warned that if the coming budget imposes new taxes on the industry it would be sounding the death knell for everybody.
The ship breaking industry had faced its slowest period between 2002 and 2007. It only got its boom when the recession hit the global economies in 2008 which forced many international companies to sell off their ships as scrap to ship breaking yards such as Gadani.
“At the moment, the industry is facing stiff competition from India and Bangladesh. Instead of new taxes, the government needs to facilitate the industry,” Rizwan said.
Long way from home
Most of the daily wage workers don’t go back home to visit their families for months. Their leisure time is spent either on drugs such as charas if they can afford to or listening to music on someone’s mobile phone.
Youngster Farhad, who hailed from Dir, said he hasn’t gone home for the last 11 months. He said although he wished to go back soon to meet his beloved, he was disgusted with his own stench and feared the love of his life might run away when she meets him.
Sabir Hussain, 60, who hails from Gujrat, hasn’t been home for the last eight years. When asked whether he had children he said, “I didn’t marry because of poverty.”
He said he used to miss his family a lot before, but 8 years after he wondered whether his family thought he died. “I think they must have thought I’ve died since I’ve stopped sending them money.”
He has saved up around Rs400,000 for himself, which he says he will use when he grows ‘old’ and has no work.
But when asked wasn’t he already too old to work at a place like Gadani.
He just smiled like Gul Rehman and carried on with his work.
This story was first published in the Express Tribune on July 2, 2012.

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