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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.

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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,