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The iron men

January 06, 2013



His face is weathered by years of exposure to the sun and the salty air of the sea. Wearing long Wellington boots, soiled overalls and a jacket over it, Kakai Khan, 40, from the city of Mingora in the Swat valley is a long way from home in Gadani, Balochistan.

But for the workers at the ship breaking yards in Gadani, the pay scale is much better than at any other labour-intensive job. And for a father of eight who has to make ends meet, that is all that matters.

The workers get up at the crack of dawn and work from approximately 7am to 7pm everyday. “No one can work or stay here for long,” he says, motioning towards the many ships beached on the shore. During their lunch break and after work, they cross the street to the few roadside cafes, have their chai and meals and either go back to work or head home, which is not that far off.

Day in and day out, they wake up and face the Arabian Sea. It is as constant and unchanging as the life of a worker at Gadani.

Kakai Khan, who has spent 20 years at Gadani and is now a supervisor — symbolised by the whistle hanging around his neck — goes away to his home village every few months. Since the workers are employed on daily wages, he says he can go “any time he wants”.

Rudimentary wooden shacks line one side of the road opposite the ship breaking yards which according to Kakai Khan, the workers build themselves. On top of it all, they have to pay rent (ranging from Rs250 to Rs300 per month) to the local landlord of the area for living in the shack that they have built themselves. Electricity bills are paid for by the owner of the roadside café and each worker contributes Rs50 to it every month.

Clean drinking water is a major issue. With no direct pipeline delivering it to the area, their only source is commissioning a water tanker to deliver water to them which comes with additional charges, and at times, takes a couple of months to arrive. An average worker gets paid between Rs550 to Rs600 per day and any extra time spent on the job is considered and compensated for as overtime. Working on Sunday earns them double the regular overtime compensation. Depending on the position (unskilled, semi-skilled or skilled) of the worker, salaries may range from Rs15,000 to Rs50,000 per month.

There are a couple of ambulances on standby in case the workers suffer an injury that requires them to go to the hospital. The only problem is that with no hospital or clinic in the area, their only option is to go to one in Karachi, which is at least an hour’s drive away. Kakai Khan seems happy with the arrangement as he proudly proclaims, “The company covers our medical.”

“Every person who works at the yard is insured,” informs Dewan Rizwan Farooqui, the chairman of the Pakistan Shipbreakers’ Association (PSBA) and the owner of the yard where Kakai Khan works.

The mortality rate of the workers at Gadani is high. Deaths by accident are not uncommon — they work without any body support and are at risk of falling from the ships they dismantle, of heavy pieces of steel falling on top of them and so on.

In the past several months, three workers died at Gadani due to fatal accidents. “The compensation given to a worker’s family in case of his death is around Rs300,000,” says Dewan Rizwan Farooqui.

Musharraf Humayoun from the Shipbreaking Labour Union Gadani corroborates that claim by saying that the grant in some cases has increased up to Rs500,000. “It is around Rs200,000 from the Government’s side,” he said, “We sometimes face problems in helping them claim that amount. A worker needs to have been working at the yard for at least three months to apply for an EOBI (Employees’ Old-Age Benefits Institution) card. Suppose a worker dies in an accident a day, or even a week after arriving at Gadani, his family cannot claim compensation for his death.”

But accidents aren’t the only thing that threatens the life of a worker at Gadani. There is exposure to asbestos, heavy metals such as lead, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, which can lead to serious short-term and long-term health complications. The workers are not physically secured when working on top of ships, there is improper disposal of asbestos (it needs to be buried in the ground in a manner that it cannot surface easily at a later point), and for those working on the drilling and welding, they might wear masks to prevent burns on their face, but they still inhale harmful fumes as they weld. Even the clothes they wear day in and day out to work have traces of harmful metals and chemicals.

Although the workers at Gadani are given boots, helmets and goggles to wear while working and labour laws are in place, some workers refuse to wear protective gear as it is mostly hot weather. It is not a regular job and promises no continuity. After scraping one ship, you wait to find work on another.