Inside the orderly burns ward at Karachi’s Civil Hospital (CHK), 20-year-old Abbas Iqbal is fighting for his life.
A doctor by his side tells family members — his father and uncle — there is little chance that the young man will survive as he has sustained more than 40 per cent burns. His body is badly burnt; and while one can make out some features, the texture of his skin is mutilated.
Iqbal is one of scores of labourers seriously injured in a horrific accident at Gadani’s ship-breaking yard, where over 20 workers died as a fire broke out inside a fuel tank on Tuesday.
While the fire raged for days, rescue officials transported him and 25 other workers to hospitals in Karachi due to the absence of medical facilities in Gadani.
“I was working on the tank of a ship when one of my colleagues accidentally dropped a blowtorch into a tank containing about six feet of oil,” Iqbal recalls, speaking slowly.
“Within a split second, I heard a deafening bang and saw a flash of fire. I then found myself in the sea,” he remembers.
“Fortunately, since I had learnt swimming in my village, I started to swim, desperate to stay alive. I was about to lose hope when I found a rope attached to a ship. I grabbed it. I do not remember what happened afterwards…” he says.
Dangerous working conditions, low remuneration are regular features of ship-breaking labour
The son of a labourer, Iqbal is the sole breadwinner in his family of eight. Like many other poor labourers working in high-risk conditions in Gadani, Iqbal left Chak 77 in Punjab’s Pakpattan when a fellow villager told him about a job in Balochistan.
To ease the family’s crippling financial burden, he expressed an interest in the job and was soon on his way to Gadani with a number of other villagers.
Other workers recovering at the hospital shared similar stories of how they left their villages to work at the ship-breaking yard. Without the provision of accommodation or daily meals, these labourers say they are paid between Rs57 and Rs72 per hour for a 14-hour working day.
There is no protective gear or training provided in case of an accident, with workers admitting that “smaller incidents” occur regularly.
Just two days before the incident took place, workers from the area held a demonstration in Karachi under the banner of the National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), seeking recognition as legal workers.
“Although the workers are generating billions of rupees for their employers and the country, they are deprived of even basic facilities like medical, education for their children and civic amenities like clean water, gas and electricity,” said Rafique Balouch, a labour leader.
“Minor accidents are of routine nature. In the past, a labourer died as he fell into an oil tank and there was no mechanism to rescue him,” one labourer said.
Iqbal says his job was to take out oil from the tank of a ship with the help of a rope and bucket.
“We are only paid when there is a ship to dismantle and we sit idle without any income when there is no work to do. We used to live in the ship where we worked as there was no separate accommodation available,” he bemoans.
Dr Suresh, Assistant Deputy Medical Superinten–dent at CHK, told Dawn that seven patients were currently under treatment at the burns ward. Usually only patients with under 30 per cent burns survive, he says, adding that some of the survivors have sustained between 60 and 90 per cent burn injuries.
Some victims brought to the hospital were sent to the orthopaedic wing as they sustained broken limbs after the impact from the explosion threw them several metres away.
At the Civil Hospital’s orthopaedic ward, Dr Asad says several victims were advised to opt for limb amputation owing to the severity of their burns.
Mushtaq Ahmed is another victim of the tragedy. Frustrated by unemployment in his native village of Dir in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, the teenager was happy to find a job that paid Rs57 per hour.
He received multiple fractures on his left leg and his elbow was dislocated. Doctors are waiting for the swelling to reduce so that he can be operated upon.
“I was on the deck of the ship and was tying a rope to a hook when I heard a bang and saw flames leaping into the sky. I fell to the ground from a 150-feet high platform,” he recalls, adding that there were about 300 labourers on board when the fire erupted.
Although high-ups ranging from the prime minister to the Balochistan chief minister have ordered an inquiry and constituted committees to look into the matter, no rocket science is needed to establish which elements are responsible for the tragedy, for the inhuman behaviour meted to these labourers and negligence that caused the second largest inferno in the country’s industrial history.
Speaking to Dawn, Aabida Ali, of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research and a member of HRCP, said that around 120 workers had gone missing and that no safety measures were taken throughout the duration of their work.
She said Pakistan needed to ensure true implementation of the Basel Convention on hazardous waste for safe and environmentally sound recycling of ships in order to make workplaces safer.
“Provincial governments need to formulate pro-worker labour policies ensuring their right to organise collective bargaining and implementation of occupational health and safety standards,” Dr Ali said.
Additional reporting by Muzammal Afzal
Published in Dawn November 5th, 2016