Shipbreaking is the process of disposing ships off by dismantling them for reusable parts or for extraction of metals as raw material. Ships are driven up to the shoreline and taken apart manually. According to The Atlantic, it takes 50 workers about 3 months to breakdown a 40,000 tons transport sea vessel.
The largest ship-breaking yards in the world are in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It can be noticed that all three are in South-East Asia. This is because the safety and health standards in these areas are neglected and labour is extremely cheap. Moreover, the safety regulations in the West do not allow for the practice anymore.
According to Vice, ship-breaking yards have been declared one of the worst workplaces in the world by National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), Ship Breaking Workers Union (SBWU) and Industrial Global Union. Estimated death toll on these yards can reach up to thousands.
The Institute of Marine Sciences and Fisheries University of Chittagong, Bangladesh has also published a report on the adverse environmental effects of the industry. It also states that most deaths are due falling off ships and some due to prolonged exposure to asbestos, lead and, PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls).
The ship-breaking yard in Gadani, Balochistan is the third largest in the world, with about 40 operative companies. It has been divided into 314 plots, 135 of which are functioning ship-breaking yards. According to the International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI), an Oslo-based independent institute, the topography of Gadani is ideal for the industries as the water is deep enough to bring ships to the shore without having to wait for the tide.
At its peak in 2014, the yard was able to break up to 100 vessels a year. It was the biggest supplier of metal to Pakistani industries and could employ up to 35,000 workers at a time, reads the ILPI report. According to Herald, each ship can on average break up to 1.2 to 1.5 million tons of steel and around 25 tons of recycled wood.
The yard witnessed its downfall when in November 2016, an oil tanker caught fire killing 26 while leaving 65 injured. The incident, in addition to the multiple claims of adverse working conditions of Labour Rights groups, led to the government’s decision to shut down ship-breaking activities at Gadani.
The closure of the yard caused huge economic losses to the Federal and Balochistan government as these yards had been contributing up to $12 billion in taxes annually. In addition, it also left thousands of labourers unemployed and stopped the supply of steel to the allied industries.
Soon after the incident, the Pakistan Ship-Breaking Association (PSBA) appealed to the Government to revive the sector and prevent it from closure. They emphasized that all due safety measures should be taken and it must be ensured that such incidents are avoided in the future.
In May 2018, after multiple suggestions to prevent closure, Former Chief Minister Balochistan Abdul Qudoos Bizenjo lifted the ban on non-functional sea vessels at Gadani. It was noted that this would help bring in revenues. The Balochistan Environmental Protection Agency (BEPA) ensured that every plot at the yard now had ambulances for immediate access to medical facilities. They added that the yard had been upgraded as per the Former Chief Minister’s orders.
However, a fire in a cargo ship in July 2018 made it evident that regulations at Gadani still have a long way to go. The revival of an industry should, under no circumstances, be at the expense of those it employs.
The ILPI suggests that the workers’ safety should be ensured. They must be using proper equipment when climbing the ships. They should also be provided with proper gear to be protected from exposure to the harmful elements released during the process. Precautions should be taken to prevent fires and explosions. The employees’ salaries should also be increased from the measly 3 USD they are presently being paid; following the standards for labourers in the West, where those working in dangerous conditions are compensated by healthier paychecks.
The shipbreaking industry is one that countries like Pakistan cannot afford to shut down as it contributes to the raw material for a large chunk of our industries as well as to the revenue through taxes. However, proper and aggressive measures can be taken to protect those who work on the yard and to avoid unfortunate incidents in the future.