On November 1 of last year, a horrific fire at the Gadani shipbreaking yard in the Pakistani province of Balochistan claimed the lives of at least 32 workers, leaving scores of others with life-altering injuries, including severe burns. In the more than two months since the accident, government officials have turned a blind eye to the long-suffering workers’ demands for justice and safe working conditions. Meanwhile, several more workers have been killed at Gadani in a series of accidents over the past few weeks.
On January 8, a young worker fell to his death from a worn down cargo ship when the lock on his emergency lifeboat gave way. Just a day later, on January 9, five workers burned to death after an LPG container was engulfed in flames. Following this incident, the government imposed Section 144 and shut down the shipbreaking yard in a transparent attempt to save face. This has only added to the misery of the workers, many of whom are left without any source of income.
The increasing death toll has further incensed the Gadani laborers, long-fed up with the rapacious capitalists and corrupt politicians responsible for their plight.
Last month, representatives of the workers agreed to a deal under which families of the victims of the November 1 accident will receive Rs 2 million each, but as of January 17, no compensation has been received by any of the families. While a case has been registered against some officials of the Gadani shipbreaking yard, the workers know better than to trust the authorities.
After all, the government isn’t even sure exactly how many workers were killed on Nov 1; nor, in fact, does it care. A report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), based on interviews with witnesses, recently revealed that as many 80 workers may have lost their lives on that day. 20 percent of the workers at Gadani are foreign migrants from countries like Myanmar. The most dangerous tasks are reserved for these doubly oppressed workers. Most of them lack identification documents. It’s possible that some of these workers are still missing. The report by the HRCP also found that the accident was due to negligence and could have been prevented.
On January 16, the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF) presented the draft of a new shipbreaking code aimed at alleviating the plight of the Gadani workers. The draft includes the oft-repeated demands of the workers for the issuance of special identity cards which would enable them to acquire pensions and social security, in accordance with the law. The workers are also calling on local authorities to follow through on their pledge to enact new health and safety measures, including the provision of helmets, gloves, shoes and safety goggles.
Shipbreaking is a lucrative industry, in which the poverty-stricken countries of South Asia play a key role. The Gadani shipbreaking yard is located in southern part of Balochistan, by far Pakistan’s poorest and least developed province. The actual land is owned by the provincial government, which leases it out to the shipbreaking industry. The massive yard is a dangerous place to work, even according to Pakistani standards.
“Hazardous substances and wastes, as well as physical, mechanical, biological, ergonomic and psychological hazards” are only some of the dangers faced by workers, noted the International Law and Policy Institute in its May 2016 report, titled “Shipbreaking Practices in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.”
The industry is also responsible for polluting the environment, according to the ShipBreaking Platform, an NGO.
“The end-of-life vessels are run up on the tidal shores of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where they are dismantled mainly manually by a migrant work force. The beaching method is at the source of severe coastal pollution and dangerous working conditions. Moreover, shipbreaking takes place in a blatant violation of international hazardous waste management laws. These laws set out strict requirements for the transboundary movement and remediation of toxics,” notes the NGO on its website. The vessels are dumped by corporations based in the core countries.
The Gadani workers are far from alone in their struggle. Workplace safety is a pertinent issue facing millions workers across Pakistan. Workers employed in the country’s critical textile industry are poisoned by toxic chemicals. Those working in the steel, iron and cement industries are forced to contend with various substances that take a toll on their minds and bodies. There are only a few hundred labour inspectors in the entire country.
The provincial government of Balochistan, like the federal government, is controlled by the Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League (N). The opposition parties have taken turns posturing as defenders of workers rights, but they aren’t fooling anybody.
The only allies the Gadani workers have are their fellow toilers across the country. The workers should rely on their own independent initiative to advance their interests. New organizations of struggle are needed and should be led by the most trusted and militant workers. By reaching out to other sections of workers and building solidarity, they can lay the foundation for a powerful social movement and score a victory for the laboring class.
Ali Mohsin is a freelance writer based in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org