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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.

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.”