The Gadani inferno

WEB DESK: They knew it was coming. A day before the ship they were to break exploded into an inferno, they had come to the Karachi Press Club to foretell their foreboding.

As a rule, the oil tanker they were to break had to be thoroughly cleaned of traces of oil four or five days ahead of that, but that had not been done – for, it would have cost money which the owner didn’t want. They also wanted the government to ratify the Hong Kong International Convention for Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships of 2009, which fixes bare minimum work to be undertaken before a ship is dismantled. But who cares where a mindset tends to prevail that a secure labor force is not only easy to exploit but also expensive to hire and problematic to fire.

But the workers also needed work to keep the wolf from the door, and the prospect of death did not scare them. Knowing fully well there is no such thing as safety at the Gadani Ship-breaking Yard they went on work to break the ship that had six feet of oil in its hold. And as they fired up the blowtorches to cut through the metal what they had feared happened at once.

The oil caught fire and there was a huge explosion. How many of about 250 labourers, who were recruited for the job the night before, perished there is only no exact information. So far some 22 bodies have been collected, some flung miles away from the site of explosion. It also caused injuries to thrice that number, and as to how many remain unaccounted for nobody knows. Three days on the inferno triggered by the explosion remains out of control.

It looks as if Gadani is not in Pakistan and the ship-breaking shipyard is not an industry and those perished in the accident were not human. Such is the diversionary force of the political power play in the country. However, quite belatedly, the prime minister has formed a committee to investigate the tragic happening.

Will something come out of it one is not very optimistic, given the fact such committees and commissions are nothing but the graveyards where accidents particularly those resulting from official ineptness are given burial. Much before this happened the government should have seen to it that Gadani ship-breaking business was run as a proper industry under the law, in which the workforce enjoyed occupational safety and workplace was secure.

But that was not the case; this was an oil tanker and the workers were asked to use blowtorches while oil in it stood six feet deep – just like the Baldia Town factory fire which hundreds of workers couldn’t escape in time as it had only one exit or no exit. Imagine the callousness of owners that this is still not known how many workers were inside the ship at the time of the explosion and who they were.

This is perversion of the maxim that safety at the workplace is a right and not a privilege. Apparently, none from concerned labour department officials had ever paid a visit to the ship-breaking site to find out if adequate worker safety arrangements were in place, and if not – which in this case is self-evident – what action was taken against the errant owners.

Consider the nonchalance on the part of the concerned departments; according to a member of the National Trade Union Federation the fire broke out on the ship at 9 am but rescue operations began as late as 3 pm. Let this unfortunate incident become a turning point in terms of working conditions at the Gadani Ship-breaking Yard.

Not only the families of the dead and injured be properly compensated by the government and the greedy owner properly penalised the officials guilty of dereliction should be held accountable.

Source: Business Recorder