Death on a beach

A watchman guards against the ship being dragged out to sea at high tides in Gaddani, Pakistan on May 31, 2008.
Michael Foley

GADDANI, Pakistan — Gaddani is a three-dimensional maze of hazards, as chaotic as a major industrial site can get. Steel, in all its forms, assaults the senses. The shrieking of metal saws is punctuated by the ferocious, unnerving thump of massive slabs falling to the sand. And the whole place smells of a four-car pileup. Which is essentially what it is.

No, this massive beach here in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province is not your typical sandy shoreline. It’s one of a handful of “shipbreaking” sites across South Asia.

Looming above the flat sand are beached ocean liners, cargo ships and oil tankers that once brought goods to markets in the US and elsewhere around the world. They once bore the flags of the world’s great shipping hubs: Greece, Norway and the UK, but when they arrive at this ignoble resting ground they fly flags of convenience — Panama, Liberia and Bahamas — to launder them from what is about to happen.

As workers attack ship flanks with blow torches and gas cutters, the smell of burning steel singes the nose. Mounds of sharp scrap wait to be hauled away, sold, and rerolled into rebar and girders for Asia’s building boom. Meanwhile, a tangle of giant chains, cables and natural gas lines crisscross the beach, all intended to move ship parts, or keep them from crashing to the ground atop teams of workers. 

Having served their purpose of transporting manufactured goods from Asia or fossil fuels from the Middle East, the ships at Gaddani are now the world’s largest hunks of trash. They can’t be left adrift at sea, and no one will pay to keep them at port. So they end up here.

The ships do not succumb easily. They were built to endure violent ocean storms and haul cargo weighing thousands of tons. Moreover, hidden among their viscera are some of the most hazardous substances known to commerce: complex petrochemicals, asbestos, heavy metals and random poisons — in the residue of hazardous cargo, or in parts needed to make the ships operate.

The work of destroying this epic trash is left to the world’s most desperate laborers, who earn a handful of dollars a day, and benefit from only rudimentary safety precautions. It is a grueling and dangerous pursuit — by some assessments, the world’s deadliest job.

"Ship breaking is an incredibly dangerous industry, we believe it's one of the most hazardous occupations in the world," a Pakistan representative from the International Labor Organization (ILO), who declined to give his name because he wasn’t authorized to speak with the media, says in a phone interview. "Every year thousands of people die at ship breaking yards in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan." 

At Gaddani, the exact death toll is hard to come by — for reasons that illustrate the precarious status of the migrant laborers who work here. One shipbreaker tells GlobalPost (in Urdu) that because laborers aren’t registered, victims simply disappear, cast aside as human refuse; as he says this, a union leader cuts him off, and an argument ensues in Pashto, the language of the migrants.

The ghost of Gaddani

At a rare quiet spot along the shore, the 46,000-ton Searose G rests, awaiting final government paperwork before it meets its demise. Forty-five days after that bureaucracy is completed, the massive cargo ship will no longer exist, torn to pieces by a crew of about 150 men.

In the ship’s shadow sits Shah Nasim, a veritable living ghost of Gaddani.

His solemn grey-blue eyes gaze out from a face entirely covered in sand and grime. He balances his crushed pelvis on a cheap, rust-soiled plastic chair, as he has now for about 15 years.

Shah Nasim moved here two decades ago from northwestern Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly the North West Frontier Province). His goal: to save as much money as possible to send to his family.

Instead of working at a textile mill, Nasim heard that they needed young, strong workers at Gaddani. The pay was a bit better. Besides, Nasim was mesmerized by his first glimpse of the ocean, and fascinated by the giant oil tankers and cargo ships that disappeared on Gaddani’s shores.

He signed up with a local contractor, working for 30 cents a day. Though the temperatures reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit and it was by no means easy work, his job was simple and methodical. Unlike the intricate fabric cutting in garment factories, Nasim would watch as a worker took a blowtorch to steel. After a square piece of metal had been cut, Nasim and a half dozen others would pull it from the ship’s body and load it on a crane lift.

Five years later, Nasim’s job changed. His supervisor noticed that he had a knack for directing the crane lift. So he tasked Nasim with standing at the base of the ship, pointing and yelling to another man working the lift’s pulley.

After three months in his new job, a metal cable from the lift snapped, catapulting metal sheets toward Nasim. The load hit him with such force that he was thrown back 30 feet. When he regained consciousness, he was pinned beneath metal. The impact shattered his pelvis and broke almost all the bones in his legs.

Over a decade later, Shah Nasim says he endures constant pain. He moves with difficulty, and only with the help of a rickety wooden crutch. Even after three surgeries his bones haven’t healed properly. “My left leg is shorter than the right leg,” Nasim says. “This makes moving and walking a little difficult.” He sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night because his legs hurt so much. Sitting down and getting up are incredibly difficult. Sometimes his leg just refuses to bend, owing to a shattered patella.

Nasim passes his days on the beach, near the site of the accident that ruined his life. He says it would be “dishonorable” to return to his family when he cannot provide for them, he tells GlobalPost. Instead of burdening them with another mouth to feed, he believes it's better for him to stay far away. Besides, he still finds the ocean to be soothing, and he doesn't want to leave it behind.

He says he finds purpose here, listening to the workers and trying to advise them about labor grievances.

He says that his experience makes him the best candidate to work with the labor unions as well as criticize them for what they aren't able to accomplish.

“Many of the young men here think that they are invincible. That’s not really the case, and I try to warn them,” Nasim says. “The labor unions are helpful, but they’re not capable of giving us everything. The newer workers need to realize this.”

Worldwide, about 800 ocean vessels each year are run aground on tidal beaches to be salvaged for recyclable parts and machinery. Eighty percent are sent to South Asia; about 1 in 5 come to Pakistan. The World Bank, which estimates that shipbreaking creates 8,000 to 22,000 jobs here, expects the local industry to grow, now that the government has relaxed steel taxes that had tilted competition in favor India and Bangladesh. Moreover, a global ship-building glut prior to the 2008 financial crisis left too many ships at sea, rendering many economically useless.

That’s good news for Baluchistan, where shipbreaking is the largest industry. Taxes on the metals are vital to the area’s economy.

While everyone welcomes the work, activists argue that there hasn't been significant progress in labor conditions, and that if Gaddani wants to remain competitive with India and Bangladesh it's unlikely that the government will invest in making the necessary changes.

Given the appalling conditions here, some have even called for a moratorium on Asian shipbreaking. “Despite the possibility of proper disposal in Europe or other developed countries, the vast majority of European shipping companies continue to profit by having their ships broken cheaply and dangerously on the beaches of South Asia,” says Patrizia Heidegger, executive director of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform. “The EU must adopt mechanisms that will prevent European ship owners from exporting toxic ships for breaking in developing countries and instead recycle them according to the health, safety and environmental laws and standards of their own countries.”

Security at Gaddani is tight. Given the revenues, the government has a vested interest in protecting the industry. Tribal rivalries and an active insurgency add to the tense atmosphere. One side effect is that journalists, watchdog groups and other outsiders rarely manage to visit. (GlobalPost tried for weeks before gaining access.)

Even off duty, conditions here are abysmal. Migrants like Nasim rent shacks beside the shipyards, where there is no potable water; instead, the workers must go to the mosque to get it. There is no electricity; gas for the operations is trucked in from Karachi, 25 miles away.

Job security is non-existent. Once a ship is completed, the workers compete to start on another, putting downward pressure on wages. Any temporary shortage of vessels leaves hundreds unemployed.

But dwarfing those hardships is the constant threat of accidents.

The tales of carnage are commonplace. One man tells GlobalPost his brother died after being electrocuted. Another says three men died in October after a gas tank fell on them. Many perish in accidents like the one that crushed Nasim: frayed cables, chains, slings, or ropes snap, hurling heavy objects downward. Others die after falling into a ship’s chambers; even if they survive the impact, they risk being asphyxiated by noxious chemical residues in the enclosed hull. Even more commonly, victims succumb to violent explosions, caused when a blow torch cuts through metal into a pocket of gas.

The shipbreakers contend that ship owners are reluctant to pay for medical treatment. Death pensions for the families of victims are hard to obtain. Employers also balk at giving the workers Employee’s Old Age Benefits (Pakistan’s version of social security).

Still, the men at Gaddani are thankful to be employed, and grateful to be alive for the next day. They say that their pay, which now approaches $5 a day for experienced laborers, is far better than any other day wage in Pakistan.

“We’re powerless to refuse this job,” says one worker. “If you had close to 12 mouths to feed back home, and were physically capable of working here, what would you choose?” he asked.

“If I die, that’s only one dead person. If I don’t do this job, that’s 13 dead people.”

Industrial autopsy

On a beach tinted orange from ground rust, four plots down from where Nasim sits watching the Searose G, about a hundred men break down the last third of a cargo ship.

Sheets of metal are scattered across the beach. Cables and large metal chains snake out of the water and into the sand. The hull is still tethered to the beach, although most of the ship slumps in huge pieces that still need disassembling. A large ship engine sits, unattended in the sand.

Despite the myriad hazards, no sections are cordoned off as dangerous. Men — many wearing traditional, loose-fitting shalwar khameez robes and cheap plastic sandals despite the sharp debris — walk the grounds oblivious to the fork lift and crane lifts scurrying about.

There’s no formal supervision at the site, and though Gaddani had boasted plans for a training college, workers barely receive rudimentary training before starting a job. Instead, there’s a combination of trial and error that results in dangerous mishaps. 

At one point, a crane extracts a steel sheet from a large pile, triggering the pile to avalanche toward three shipbreakers who are directing the crane. Luckily, they manage to scurry to safety, but the situation appeared easily avoidable. A watchtower, and better training could have prevented the men from being caught unaware. 

Closer to the shoreline, men wield blowtorches to cut large pieces of steel into smaller ones. Though the men wear coveralls and rudimentary protective equipment — this plot, workers say, is one of the few at Gaddani that provides with large leather gloves and eye goggles for workers operating hazardous equipment. Yet they complain the protection isn’t adequate.

Mohammad Anwar prefers to squint rather than moving the eye goggles from the top of his head as he assaults a metal slab with his blowtorch. Pausing, he points to the goggles’ tinted lenses, pockmarked by the tiny sparks that fly away from the metal and into his face. “I can’t exactly see through this,” he explains. “Don’t you think it would be more dangerous for me to use these?”

He says that every few days, a coworker is walked down to the makeshift clinic. Though there are no doctors, someone puts a few drops into the worker’s injured eye and bandages it. Sometimes, the man isn’t able to see again for a few days. Other times, Anwar says, they never see again.

Between Karachi and Gaddani, in a small town named Shershah, the men can buy coveralls and gum boots. These are expensive, and not provided by the employers. As soon as a man can afford the equipment, the seasoned workers encourage him to buy it.

Sometimes men are so eager to get better footwear that they buy whatever gum boots are available, even if they don't fit. Oversized boots are also hazardous, the veterans tell GlobalPost — a common rooky trap. Younger men buy them and then slip, because they have less control over their feet.

Standing about 25 feet above the ground, Anwar and other workers slowly cut a slab of steel that contains the engine. This, he says, is the most terrifying part of his job.

“We don’t know if there’s a pocket of gas or a puddle of oil that we may hit with our blow torches while cutting.” He gestures to his coveralls, and his neighbors.

“If we hit that gas pocket, there’ll be an explosion. Even if we survive, some of us will lose our hands, break our legs. After that there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever be able to work again.”

There are other health concerns. Workers sometimes cut their hands while moving the jagged metal. Antibiotics and trained health professionals are hard to come by. Some have died from blood infections. These deaths aren’t counted in the labor unions’ accidental death reports, the only official records of worker deaths and injuries at Gaddani.  

Other men tell GlobalPost that the constant pounding and metal work is making them slowly go deaf. “We spend almost 14 hours a day working here. The clanging of hammers and chisels is common. The thump of metal hitting the beach is common,” says Humayun Khan, who wonders whether he is getting used to the noise. “I don’t know if we’re actually going deaf or getting better at tuning the noise out.” Regardless, the men need to be able to hear when their coworkers shout warnings. It’s easy to be taken by surprise by chunks of airborne metal, or by blowtorches that have escaped hands.

Greenpeace and the International Federation for Human Rights have argued that exposure to hazardous chemicals is another serious, albeit silent, killer.

“Ships are really death machines,” explains the ILO Pakistan representative. “For starters, they’re chock full of asbestos, which has been linked to diseases like mesothelioma” a rare but deadly cancer of the lungs, heart and stomach.

In Pakistan, it’s difficult to actually gauge how much exposure the workers have to asbestos. The yards employ a bury-on-sight policy.

“Then, there’s the cadmium and arsenic, poisonous biocides, and sometimes even radioactive substances that can be found on the ship,” the ILO representative adds. Because most of the ship breakers are migrant workers, they sleep down the road from the ship breaking yards. A Greenpeace/FIDH report says that it’s quite possible that workers at shipbreaking yards are breathing and ingesting these substances 24 hours a day.

“Helping” the shipbreakers

The shipbreaking plots at Gaddani typically have a makeshift office where the ship owners and supervisors meet. It’s in these offices that the labor union leaders lobby for the rights of their workers.

Gaddani employs both salaried and day-wage laborers. After a few years on the job, day laborers can now earn between $3 and $5 a day. Though laws cap shifts at 8 hours for these day rates, competition for jobs is fierce, many are coaxed into working overtime — typically without any additional compensation.

Two labor unions operate at Gaddani, and both claim to have improved the lives of the workers. In July 2010, the unions successfully lobbied for a 40 percent increase in wages.

Nasim Shah, who realized soon after his horrifying accident that he would never work again, says the unions’ limitations are apparent to everyone at the beach. 

The Pakistan Trades and Mines Labor Union, operating at Gaddani since 1986, browbeat Nasim’s employers to pay his medical bills. After months in a Karachi hospital, and weeks of sitting through legal meetings, Nasim was awarded $5,000 for his injury. The award seemed shockingly high. To this day, Nasim isn’t able to comprehend that he had received it. He believed the money, delivered to him in one large lump sum, would support his family for his lifetime.

Now, he realizes the sum was paltry.

“I was injured when I was in my late 30s. I had three sons, two daughters and a wife.” He shakes his head, they all live up north. “My sons can barely provide for my family. The money was gone so fast, we cannot even understand how it happened.”

He says that now he wanders the beaches of Gaddani, counseling as many men as he can find. Recently, a man he knows was badly injured. Although the closest hospital is in Karachi, the man survived.

When the labor union lobbied for him to get a monthly stipend of half his regular salary for the rest of his life, the ship owner countered with an offer of $3,000, paid in one large sum.

Nasim says that he did everything in his power to convince the man the latter was a worse deal. However, the company hadn’t paid his medical bills, and the debt threatened to choke him. He took the lump sum.

“He, like me, will never be able to work again,” says Nasim, who says that his inability to move quickly deterred him from finding jobs at factories. He was considered an old dog — and one unable to learn new tricks. “I think that my only use is to try and help people like me before they become me,” Nasim explains.

“If I can’t do that, I’m not sure what I’m still doing here.” 

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