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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.

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