December Issue 2016

By | Special Report | Published 8 years ago

A resident of Altaf Nagar in Orangi Town, Karachi, Kamran Ali doesn’t remember the exact age he was when his father Mubarak brought him to the Gadani ship-breaking yard to work as an oil cleaner like many other Bengali immigrants engaged in the trade.

“My father worked here for a couple of years, and then went back to his old job. I remained and have been working here for the last 18 years,” Ali says, adding, “the boys from our community have two options: either sign on to work on the fish trawlers in the deep sea, or come to Gadani and work as oil cleaners.” This process involves cleaning the residue in the storage containers on the ships carrying fuels, once the oils have been pumped out. And thereafter begins the demolition process.

This is a dangerous business. Ali explains, “All the oil tankers and cargo carriers have, along with the oil they are ferrying, a huge quantity of waste oil — sludge — a thick liquid form of the residue of oil and lubricants.” This residue not only emits dangerous fumes, but is also highly flammable. So the process involved requires stringent safety checks.

MT Aces, the ship in Gadani at which a fire recently claimed a yet unascertained number of lives, was used for both the storage and transportation of unrefined oil. Once the oil was pumped out, the sludge in the containers on the ship was to be removed and sold for recycling purposes, or to be used in furnaces. According to Ali, “MT Aces had on board 25,000 drums laden with sludge. There were also huge amounts of it in the oil tanks.”

Robin des Bois, a France-based organisation working for the protection of people and the environment, issues a quarterly report on ship-breaking activities across the globe. In their bulletin issued on November 2, they wrote about the Gadani accident, and confirmed that a significant amount of slops (sludge) were on board.

In a report submitted by his ministry following the incident, Hasil Khan Bizenjo, a senator from Balochistan and the federal minister for ports and shipping, hinted at the smuggling of oil on ships sailing to and from Gadani. But the officer investigating the Gadani shipyard fire, Zulfiqar Janjua, denies the claim made in the report.

There is enough evidence that points to the illicit import of oil through the Iran-Balochistan border, and its routine transportation to Karachi and other districts of Sindh. However, using shipping as the route to conduct this illegal business is not a feasible option, and can be a dangerous one. “Customs officials know exactly what is going on, but have vested interests in colluding with the shipbreakers who sell the oil and use the sludge in their mills or sell it to furnaces in Karachi,” says a customs official on condition of anonymity. He contends that MT Aces was almost certainly inspected by customs officials, but they won’t admit it to evade responsibility for the tragedy that transpired.

A manager at the Balochistan Development Authority (BDA), Nasrullah Zehri, terms the process of acquiring a ‘No Objection Certificate (NOC)’ from the customs, labour departments and the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) as a breeze for yard owners. “The process of procuring the NOC takes anywhere from a week to a month after a ship docks, but over the years, this formality is merely paperwork. Most of the time the demolition work on ships is started without attached to the file submitted to the BDA,” he says. Zehri adds, “by the time we get the NOCs, most parts of the ship have already been demolished.”

A contractor who deals with extracting the wooden material from ships about to be demolished, discloses, “Customs officials and those from other departments are interested only in the perks the ship owners provide them: nice pieces of furniture, containers of liquor etc. These bribes ensure smooth sailing for the shippers in respect of the inspection process, and they get the required NOCs without much delay.”

The nature of the certification in Pakistan in any case falls short of safety requirements. It is described by the Robin des Bois bulletin: “The gas-free certification for ships arriving in Pakistan only concerns the safety of workers in the danger areas, but is not compatible with hot works… No clearance for hot works is required.” ‘Hot works’ refers to the use of heat — from acetylene torches and the like — to remove the sludge from the oil tanks in the cleaning process.

Oil cleaning worker Kamran Ali recalls the offers made to him by the oil contractor, Farooq Bengali, whom he says is a friend, for the clean-up operation on MT Aces. “When the ship arrived, we were asked by Farooq to go and see it and decide if we could work with him. Once we arrived there, however, we noticed that the tanks were reeking with fumes emanating from bilge water and sludge. To add to the hazard that posed, the tanks were piping hot due to the sunlight streaming in,” says Ali.

According to him, no one could have even stood in the vicinity of the tanks for more than 15 minutes without keeling over. “Anyone who did so would either have fainted or started choking.” And so Kamran Ali declined to take on the job. But the ship-owner was in a hurry; he wanted the tanks cleaned and had assigned the contract to Bengali for nine million rupees, telling him to hire as many people as he could to complete the process. So this is what he did.

“Apart from me, dozens of other oil cleaners refused to work in those conditions, demanding that the ship be aired and the fumes expelled before the oil cleaning started. Another oil cleaning contractor, Saleem, cognisant of the dangers of such work, had suspended the oil cleaning work on board another ship when the owner wanted to start the ‘hot’ work at the same time as the pumping out of the sludge — i.e. Saleem asked who would be responsible for what might ensue due to the risk factors involved. Bengali, however, was willing to go for a quick fix. He hired new, inexperienced men from Karachi to proceed with the oil cleaning,” says Ali.

Normally, in the presence of fumes and gases, the hulls of the ships, i.e. the iron sheets, are drilled or cut with grinders rather than through the use of oxygen acetylene torches, because of the obvious inherent dangers involved in such an operation. Blowers can also be used. However, in the MT Aces, no such precautions were observed, and the relatively inexperienced labour hired, obviously did not understand the risks involved.

When the MT Aces arrived at yard number 54, owned by Abdul Ghafoor Kamboh, alias Chaudhry, the latter, perhaps to cut expenses, sacked Kher Muhammad, the contractor he usually worked with and replaced him with the inexperienced Gul Zameen. In his early 40s, Zameen alias ‘Angrez’, a Pashtun from district Upper Dir, was appointed as labour supervisor, a salaried job, and was promised he would be elevated to the status of labour contractor if he could manage to get MT Aces dismantled and brought to the ground in 15 days.

Lateef Dogar, the ground foreman and the ship-owner’s front man, put forward the seth’s demands to the newly hired supervisor — who was in charge of the hot work on board the ship — to immediately start cutting the pipelines on the main deck. Oil tankers have a web of pipelines spread over the main deck. Each pipeline serves a different purpose: some carry oil, others hydraulic oil, and some, waste oil. Then there are other lines for bilge water and yet more, for water. These pipelines are connected to the tanks containing all these substances.

A labourer who was working with Gul Zameen discloses, “On the night of the accident, Gul Zameen received a call from Dogar, who kept insisting that the hot work should be done on the main deck as the oil cleaners would be inside the tanks.” Gul, who got his job at the ship-yard through Dogar, was irritated. He was heard saying that he had to ensure there was no delay and the hot work had to start the following day.

Realising the hazards, but tempted by the promise of promotion, and keeping in view friends who had become millionaires working as labour contractors, in utter disregard for all the precautions, Zameen hired 12 welders and 24 helpers to bring the pipelines down. It was an accident waiting to happen. The fumes and gases emanating from the oil, bilge water, and sludge caught fire when a blowtorch was lit to cut one of the pipes leading to the tank at the bottom. It caused a huge blowback — and had a ripple effect as other tanks exploded. Gul Zameen, his son, and nephews were among the 28 deceased whose identities have been established. They were all burnt alive.

Syed Shakir Ali, a 23-year-old Pashtun from Upper Dir, and the owner of the hotel located opposite the gate of plot number 54, was sitting in his wooden cabin, once part of a ship now turned into a room, when he heard the sound of the blast. It was followed by loud cries, wails and shouts.

Pakistani men gather as they wait for missing relatives in front of a burnt ship

“The blast was so powerful that even though my cabin is at a distance of 300 meters from the ship, it jolted me. I fell from my bed on to the floor. When I looked out of the window, I saw smoke rising from the ship. Its front — the bulbous bow and the bulwark — were blown away, and the ship lay wide open, as the hulls partitioning the tanks were wrecked in the massive blast,” recalls Shakir Ali.

He continues, “People started gathering, but were afraid to go closer to the site of the fire as the blasts continued and the fire raged. Worse, human limbs, and parts of the ship — iron sheets and pipes — rained down in all directions. To add to this, no means of rescue work were at hand. The only ambulance at Gadani is used by local officials as their personal conveyance, or to pick and drop their kids from school. So we decided to do what we could. Another hotel owner and I provided our Suzuki pickups for the rescue effort, someone else gave a truck, and we started transferring the injured to the nearby Rural Health Centre (RHC).”

Waris Shah, a welder from another plot, was among those who arrived at the scene after they heard the blast. He describes the images he witnessed as catastrophic. “The injured and the deceased were carried by forklifts and were put down on the foam mattresses laid in the pickups and truck. They were then moved to the closest hospitals,” he says.

An Edhi fleet of ambulances from Hub and Karachi arrived almost an hour after receiving the call about the fire, with Faisal Edhi himself leading the rescue effort. Thereafter they were joined by naval and the other forces’ medical teams. Many of the injured were taken to the only health facility in Hub, the Jam Ghulam Qadir Hospital, but it too lacked the necessary resources to deal with the calamitous injuries, and had no burns ward. So the injured — almost 60 people — were then rushed to hospitals in Karachi.

As for the numbers of the deceased and wounded, according to Zulfiqar Janjua, SHO City at Hub, who has been appointed the investigations officer for the Gadani accident, Farooq Bengali has submitted the names of 24 labourers he says were hired by him, and of six others hired through oil contractors, Tabassum and Khalid, he had subcontracted part of the work to. However, given the fact that he himself is named in the FIR filed in regard to the incident, Bengali, who managed to escape the accident by getting off the ship as soon as the fire erupted, was arrested by the police. The police are in search of Tabassum and Khalid, but their whereabouts remain unknown.

Another oil cleaning worker, a local from the nearby goth, debunks the claim that there were only 30 cleaners on board. He contends, “To begin with, two tanks were opened for cleaning. It takes 30 to 40 workers to clean a single tank. That is why the numbers provided by Bengali cannot be trusted.”

Kamran Ali recalls, “When I asked Bengali, before he was arrested by the police, about the workers who were on board the ship with him, he told me that there were 24, but he could recall only nine names.”

He explains, “Oil-cleaning workers are often hired by contractors on a daily basis, hence the numbers fluctuate. The oil contractor tells the yard manager the total number of workers when they are boarding the ship, and he is supposed to note this. But when I enquired from the worker making tea for the oil cleaners about the number of people on the ship that day, he said that he was asked to make tea for 60 people.”

Since the accident, multiple other reports have charged that more than 100 people died in the fire — and some were completely incinerated so as to have left no traces of their existence.

Those that did survive, meanwhile, found little relief due to the acute paucity of relief measures. The BDA attributes its dire lack of infrastructure, and basic amenities in Gadani to its economic handicaps. According to an officer of the BDA, the revenue collected by the federal government from the ship-breaking industry through the sale of scrap works out to a sizeable amount given the figures involved: Rs. 8000 per metric ton. The BDA gets only Rs. 50 per ton.

“There has been an agreement between the federal government and Balochistan since 1978 that half of the collected revenue would be given to the province, but, except for the early few years, this obligation has never been fulfilled,” says Nasrullah Zehri. He continues, “The BDA has been working on an infrastructure development plan worth 11 billion rupees. But we cannot implement it until we get the funds required for orchestrating that plan. Most of the time we don’t even get our salaries on time, having to wait months for them.”

Tanveer Aftab, the District head of the People’s Primary Healthcare Initiative, a Balochistan government-funded programme, also recalls the dire accident. He says members of their basic health unit (BHU) at a nearby Gadani goth, heard the blast, and rushed to the site, and later the Rural Health Centre (RHC) where the wounded were being transported.

“The injuries were beyond the scope of our basic health unit staff. We primarily work with the communities — the people living in the Gadani goths — but we are often asked by the RHC for help. They tend to the people from the ship-breaking yards who sustain injuries. But the RHC lacks medicines and even basic equipment, so we try and help them out on humanitarian grounds,” says Aftab.

“In many instances in the past we approached the ship-breakers and the union to cooperate with us, and provide some financial aid, so we could buy medicines and help the injured workers. But they never responded. And despite the shipyards being a government-funded enterprise, the workers receive little help from the establishment. They are all completely indifferent and apathetic to the workers’ miseries,” he adds.

The horrific accident engendered innumerable conspiracy theories. There was conjecture about the involvement of a ‘foreign hand,’ and about the fire being an act of terrorism. And a member of the Balochistan Assembly from District Lasbela, Prince Ahmed Ali Ahmedzai, said the crew on board the ship was of Indian origin, and was missing since the accident. This sort of speculation was echoed in TV talk shows, the press and endlessly on social media.

A former ship-breaker, however, trashes such talk, saying it stems from a “lack of knowledge about the way ships are beached at Gadani. In their desire to politicise everything, they don’t even cross-check and verify the facts with the concerned authorities,” he says. When a ship enters Pakistani territory, it is taken over by the crew from the Pakistan Marines. The foreign crew just stays till the ship is beached. Then they are taken to the airport and leave for their respective countries.”

In its bulletin, Robin des Bois published a picture of MT Aces, in which are clearly visible images of Pakistani crew member, Ahmer Siddique, who is an employee of the Pakistan Marines and a resident of Karachi. He is seen posing on deck and the name of the ship and its IMO number can easily be read.

Alongside far-fetched conspiracy theories, print, online publications and the electronic media have also fortunately begun to delve into the causes of the accident. Several news reports have rightly highlighted the plight of the labour at the ship-breaking yard, the poor health and safety conditions, the lack of basic amenities, both, for migrant workers and locals, and the role of the dummy labour union which is run by labour contractors. However, conspicuous by its absence is a discussion on the ship breaking and recycling process. And it was this that was the eye of the needle in the Gadani fire.

Invariably in a hurry to sell, ship owners ignore all safety procedures as long as they can get their ships dismantled and the scrap sold. The workers at the shipyards then, often lay their lives on the line to eke out a living.

But it is not just Pakistan’s shipping industry that is guilty of malpractice. Denmark’s Maersk Line, the world’s leading company which operates a fleet of over 600 large container vessels, has been facing severe criticism at home and from international organisations for its decision to send its ships for demolition to the Indian ship-breaking yard Alang and the ship-breaking yard in Chittagong, Bangladesh, because of the working conditions in those countries. The campaign to protest this was led by the Danish media watchdog, Danwatch, which published a report on the Indian ship-breaking yard that Maersk sends its ships to. The report stated the lack of compliance with safety measures at the shipyard, such as exposed gas cables, poor ventilation and lack of safety equipment.

Responding to the criticism, Maersk had to clarify that it would ensure improved working conditions there, and would personally contribute to this effort. Annette Stube, head of Maersk Group Sustainability wrote, “The dismantling and recycling of a ship are recognised as part of the value of the ship. The majority of the world’s vessels are sent for recycling where the highest possible price for the steel can be attained. This is in shipyards on the beaches of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.”

In her report, Stube admits that ships are typically dismantled under poor working and environmental conditions in the locations she cites, and that “lower standards mean lower costs.” No surprises then that they have cornered the market for ship scrapping. In 2015, 74 per cent of the world’s ships were dismantled on these beaches.

To evade complicated issues regarding financial transactions and legal hurdles, ship-owners often deal only with cash buyers, and hoist flags on their ships of countries with lax regulations. This practice is known as ‘Flag of Convenience’ (FOC), and these ships are called FOC ships.

“There are special kinds of flags valid for a few months that don’t require an operator to set up shop in the issuing nation, and they are particularly cheap for a last voyage,” said Patrizia Heidegger, executive director of a Brussels-based ship-breaking platform in an interview to an Indian newspaper.

And a Canadian marine engineer on an online forum of The Marine Professional writes of the Gadani incident, “This kind of catastrophe isn’t uncommon in that industry. Surely much of the responsibility should lie with the former ship’s owners who cheaped out on their recycling obligations and got people killed and injured.”

Ship-breakers from South Asian countries (Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh), many of whom are under huge debt from the banks meanwhile, manage to purchase most of the ships, as they offer the highest bids — paying in cash or through letters of credit from banks — while cutting down substantially on the price of the demolition work by employing the most low cost means to get the job done. This, of course, at the cost of unsuitable working conditions, a lack of safety measures, and major environmental hazards.

Abdul Ghafoor Kamboh aka Chaudhry, owner of plot number 54 managed to make a fortune through the ship-breaking business in the last three decades. Today, he and his sons own steel re-rolling mills, and commercial properties worth millions in the Sindh Industrial and Trading Estate (SITE) Karachi. His ship-breaking yard, however, is under huge debt to various banks.

“Chaudhry Ghafoor has yet to clear his bank dues which amount to approximately seven billion rupees. The yard was near closure, but by purchasing the MT Aces, though it was only 24000 metric tons, he expected to earn enough to at least pay the huge bank mark-up on his debts,” says a labour contractor.

In the last two decades, organisations like the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the European Union, and organisations working on the environment have come up with conventions and regulations for safety and health measures, and plans for ‘green’ ship recycling.

Pakistan, third in the world in terms of the number of ships recycled here, has ratified the Basel Convention on environmental safety, but has still to ratify ILO conventions regarding safety and health issues, and the Hong Kong convention, which also needs to be ratified by other countries before it can be enforced. So far only five countries — Belgium, Congo, Denmark, France and Norway — have signed it.

The bottom line: the whole ship recycling practice needs a massive overhaul if those working in the shipping industry are to be protected, and if the quality of their lives is to improve.



Sea of Indifference

The human face of the Gadani fire.

After hearing the blast and seeing the smoke arising from the raging fire in the oil tanker MT Aces, Waris Shah, a skilled worker who was busy in a welding job at the adjacent yard, rushed towards the ship. “My uncle, a friend, and two other fellow villagers were on board the ship. They had been hired by the deceased labour supervisor, Gul Zameen,” he says. “Most of the men hired by Zameen for the MT Aces job were from his own village Tormung, our village, Bebewar, or the adjacent village in Upper Dir.”

Shah continues, “It was a horrendous sight. People were standing on board the burning ship, screaming for help. Some were trying to climb down, but the ropes they had were too short: the deck was at a height of more than 75 feet from the ground and the water. I could see my uncle and friend clinging to one rope, and the two villagers I knew from back home, to another rope to which were also clinging half-a-dozen others. But the steel body of the ship was also very hot, and the ropes could not support them for long. Some people fell into to the sea — I could see my fellow villagers, Ejaz and Allauddin, plunge into the water. It was horrifying as they didn’t know how to swim.”

Shah says a boat docked in an adjacent yard was then ferried to the ship by a labour contractor, Bakht Rawan, who hails from Swat. He says the crew from that boat hurled ropes towards the people trying to clamber down the ship. “My uncle and a friend were among the 40 people rescued. But Ejaz and Allauddin went under. We found their dead bodies later on the beach — Ejaz’s body was found after eight hours, and Allauddin’s late in the night,” he recalls with a shudder.

The labour supervisor, Gul Zameen, and his nephews were also found dead. His son was among those who had jumped in to the sea. He was rescued and taken to hospital, but he succumbed to the back injuries and burns he had sustained.

Another ship worker, Chiragh Ali remembers the evening before the fire accident. Two young Bengali boys — new faces — rented a cabin in the vicinity the night before the accident. They had come on a motorcycle, bearing a Karachi numberplate. They told Ali they had been sent by a relative to work with an oil contractor. Ali recalls, “After that night, I never saw them again. However, the motorcycle was still there for a couple of days. Then the brother of one of those boys came, and took the motorcycle back to Karachi. Before he left, I asked him about the boys. He said that his brother had not been found, but his friend had survived with minor injuries. He had managed to jump into the water and swim towards the beach.”

Sahibzada Sanaullah, PPP MPA from Dir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, recalls the terrible aftermath of the accident. “I was at Islamabad Airport the next day to receive the remains of three of the men who had perished in the fire from my village, Turmang, Upper Dir. Then I went to Gadani, and stayed there for a week, going through the harrowing experience of identifying the bodies of the deceased, sending them to Karachi, and then on to their native towns.”

Moeen Khan, owner of a crane workshop, and founder of the recently established welfare organisation, the Al-Moeen Foundation, talked about his 35 years at Gadani. “I have seen people turning into millionaires at the yards. The contractors cover up the fatal accidents, crippling injuries, and amputations that are the heavy price many of the labourers pay to earn a livelihood. To compound the dangers, they have no recourse — no way to extract even meagre compensation for what they have endured.

Meanwhile, those on the other side — i.e. the contractors and ship owners — invest in big cars, properties, trucks and trawlers, while spending nothing to ensure the safety and health of the workers they hire. “At the very least, if they had just taught their labour to swim, or invested in life jackets, many people might be alive today,” he maintains.

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order