Azima, a middle-aged traditional Baloch woman, was inside her house in Gadani when she heard a blast and minutes later wails of ambulances. She went out to see what had happened and found a thick cloud of smoke on the horizon. She ascended a mound to see that it was emanating from a ship. Thinking of her son, she started running towards it until police stopped her from going ahead.
“My son, Sanaullah, who had turned 18 and started work two months ago was inside that ship which burnt in front my eyes,” she recounted the tragedy of the 2016 Gadani oil tanker fire as she received a cheque of Rs500,000 as compensation from the Balochistan government on Monday. “I would not send any of my children to work in ship-breaking again.”
Twenty-nine workers were killed and over 50 were injured as fire ripped through a decommissioned oil tanker, Aces, moored for dismantling at Plot 54 in the Gadani Ship-Breaking Yard on November 1, 2016. The incident is dubbed as one of the deadliest industrial disasters as the fire raged for three days and the bodies of four of the victims were never found.
Although the fire has terrified many like Azima into doing away with the ship-breaking work, there are still many who continue to be involved in it, anticipating a better future. Allah Bachayo, who hails from Dera Ghazi Khan, was the in-charge of the Aces’ unfortunate welding crew that included his younger brother Muhammad Afzal. He said the working conditions have improved a bit since the incident, however, there’s still a long way to go.
“Now, the workers are provided safety tools like helmets and gloves by their employers. There is an ambulance and a small dispensary in almost each yard. However, the government has not fulfilled its promise of providing a hospital to the workers,” Bachayo said, adding that they still have to travel 50 kilometres to Karachi to seek help in emergency situations.
Twenty-one families from across the country – mostly from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and then from Punjab – were each given a cheque of Rs500,000 each at the ceremony in the Pearl Continental Hotel.
Sardar Hussain, a white-bearded elderly man who along with his burqa-clad wife and a nephew had travelled from Dir to Karachi, credited the workers union for getting relief to the victims.
After the incident, he explained, representatives of the workers union kept in touch with him and communicated about their correspondence with the employers and the government. He added that he received a total of Rs2 million in compensation for losing his son, of which Rs1.5
million was paid by the ship-breaking yard owners in February 2017.
Speaking at the ceremony, Adviser to Balochistan Chief Minister on Labour Mir Muhammad Khan Lehri apologised to the victims’ families for delay on part of the provincial government in paying the compensation. He said that though nothing could compensate for a life lost, the government, employers and workers could resolve for a collective strategy to make things better.
Lehri said the government was collecting data of all the local and immigrant workers employed in the mining and ship-breaking industry in the province to bring them under the legal net for their social security, pension and grants. He added that a law had been passed by the government to provide for Rs1 million in death grant to ship-breaking workers.
The Gadani Ship-Breaking Workers Union president, Bashir Mehmoodani, said the compensation was paid from a special fund by the Balochistan labour department and the Workers Welfare Board. He also stressed the need for ensuring the health and safety measures inside the yards which still pose the same threat.
“In March, we had an incident in which two workers were killed and as many were injured. Since there was no facility in the area to treat the injured, they were rushed to Karachi for treatment where one died,” Mehmoodani said, adding that the government should first of all provide a tertiary-care hospital so that the injured could be given first aid immediately.
Apropos to the demand, Ismail Sattar, member of the Workers Welfare Board, asked the provincial government to hand over the administration of the hospital to the board. He said that if the government could not run the hospital, the employers and workers would run it through a committee. He also urged the government to introduce labour laws friendly for investors.