The protest by the labour leaders and human rights activists last month has brought to light, once again, the miserable working and living conditions the workers are braced to at Gadani shipbreaking yards. On the 1st of November every year they mark the tragic accident occurred on that day in 2016, termed as the worst disaster in the history of global shipbreaking.
An oil tanker, known as the Floating Production, Storage and Off-loading (FPSO) Tanker named ACES had caught fire during shipbreaking, which killed 33 workers and injured another 54, while scores of others were trapped and went missing. As the FPSO tanker is used in off-shore oil and gas extraction and refinement process, it was, at the time of demolition, holding several thousand tons of residual bunker oil and many gas cylinders. The vessel was not cleaned and cleared of the hazardous materials as required, and there were no remedial measures or necessary precautions adopted either, putting at risk hundreds of lives.
Ironically, the blazing fire continued unabated for over four long days as a series of explosions occurred followed by the start of fire on-board the ship. The fire could not be controlled primarily due to lack of proper and adequate firefighting apparatus and equipment. Also, the rescue and emergency response at site has been appalling and practically non-existent. Fire and other serious accidents are common in Gadani shipbreaking yards. Another fire broke out on-board a ship during demolition process in December 2016 causing death of 22 workers and other casualties. After about two weeks, on January 9, 2017, another fire incident resulted in killing 5 workers whereas many others sustained burn injuries. But the most shocking fact is that the same partially-scrapped FPSO Tanker named ACES, on resumption of its demolition after one-year ban, caught fire again on November 13, 2017, injuring at least five workers. Major fire accidents also happened on other vessels on July 17, October 18 and November 12 in 2018.
Sadly, the sufferings of the shipbreaking workers go unnoticed, conditions are still the same, and Gadani shipbuilding yards remain poorly equipped to handle the hazards of fire and other accidents. The workers of Gadani shipbreaking industry have been demanding better working conditions and implementation of safety standards and measures since long. But to no avail as, seemingly, both the governments—federal and provincial-- and other stakeholder remain insensitive to these important issues.
Global shipbreaking industry is a billion-dollar business, and growing steadily despite the COVID-19 pandemic impacts. During the period July-September 2020, a total of 170 ships were scrapped the world over. Old shipping vessels that outlive their usefulness are decommissioned, dismantled, disassembled and recycled to generate various types of scrap. The long list of such vessels includes general cargo ships, container ships, bulk carriers, oil tankers, chemical tankers etc. Concentrated in South Asia, at present the major key players are Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, in the same order, dominating international market by about 80 percent of shipbreaking share. Globally, Pakistan is now ranked fourth, or sometimes third largest shipbreaking country in terms of scrapped tonnage and number of ships dismantled annually.
Last year, Bangladesh dismantled old ships of total 8,632,000 LDT (light displacement tons), whereas India shipbreaking tonnage amounted to 4.69 million. On the other hand, Pakistan dismantled 3,943,000 tons of ships during the same period. Other countries engaged in shipbreaking are China and Turkey. Interestingly, Pakistan was the top shipbreaking destination in the world until the 1980s. Due to improper policies of subsequent governments however it lost lucrative market to competitors, primarily Bangladesh. Today, Pakistan has shipbreaking capacity reduced to 9 percent of the overall world capacity. Comparatively, Bangladesh has achieved 25 percent of global capacity, having over 150 shipbreaking yards in Chittagong, all functional, and with about 50,000 direct workforces. Chittagong is now the largest shipbreaking facility of its kind in the world. Bangladesh dismantled and recycled 234 ships in 2019, while Pakistan’s all-time high record is of 107 ships in 2009-10. Gadani, located across a 10-kilometer beachfront in Lasbela district, Balochistan, has total 135 shipbreaking yards though many are not operational, and has about 10,000 direct employees that once boasted over 30,000.
Pakistan’s shipbreaking industry, which dates back to the 1960s, has been marred with numerous issues and challenges from the beginning and therefore could not establish on strong foundations. All the Gadani shipbreaking yards are owned by the Balochistan Development Authority (BDA), and out of these 34 yards have been rented out to private companies mostly based in Karachi. Iron and steel scrap generated at Gadani by dismantling average six to eight vessels of small size is estimated in the range of 1.2 to 1.5 million tons annually. This re-meltable scrap meets around 40 percent requirement of the domestic steel rerolling mills that otherwise would be imported. Currently, Pakistan imports iron and steel scrap valuing over one billion US dollars. Besides tons of wood, other valuable items recovered and recycled are steel pipes, valves, electrical cables (copper wiring), engine, batteries, generators and alike.
Shipbreaking is considered a hazardous industry and dangerous occupation the world over. In Pakistan, thousands of labour, coming from all the provinces, work in perilous conditions, dealing with hazardous materials and waste, like heavy metals, residual oils, toxic paints, asbestos, chemicals etc. The demolition crews are forced to work manually but Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as protective clothing, helmet, goggles and others, are generally not provided. There is no system for toxic waste disposal. Indeed, the owners put profits above safety. Likewise, there exist no hospitals or dispensaries or ambulances in spite of common occupational diseases, and adequate firefighting equipment is missing. There is no government agency to monitor and regulate the operations at shipbreaking yards. The workers are engaged on jobs through labour contract system and are paid meagre wages, sometimes not even the minimum wages set by the government.
There is no security of jobs. No benefits of any kind are available to workers, such as admissibility of overtime though they work for long hours, any weekly, monthly or annual holidays, pension or gratuity, medical facility or healthcare, insurance or compensation in case of accidents. They are not registered with the institutions of social security, and no legal protection is available to them. Thousands of workers, some with their families, live in miserable and inhumane conditions, exposed to environmental hazards too. There is no housing colony and they live in make-shift shelters made up at their own that are void of basic amenities such as gas, electricity, sewerage, sewage, pathways, and even clean drinking water. Understandably, there are no schools for their children.
Shipbreaking is very profitable business and contributes billions of rupees annually to national economy. The government imposes heavy taxes on shipbreaking, without making any further investment for its development. Sadly, the government has failed so far to recognise the significance and potential of domestic shipbreaking industry. It is ironical that a number of institutional reports prepared in the past at national and international levels on Gadani shipbuilding have been shelved by the government without taking any action whatsoever. It is imperative for the government to formulate, on priority, a national shipbreaking policy, and to allow workers their due rights, abolishing labour contract system. In this context, the government should ratify international laws and regulations on shipbreaking, such as the European Union Regulations on Ship Recycling, Hongkong Convention, Basel Convention and the ILO (International Labour Organisation) Guidelines.
The writer is retired chairman State Engineering Corporation