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Every day, 6,300 workers die on the job. GlobalPost investigates the industries that kill them.


Death on a beach

For laborers who tear the world’s ships apart, death comes in many forms.

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