A Fire without an Extinguisher

In a large-scale industrial accident accompanied a fire that raged for four days, the death toll from an explosion and fire at the Gadani ship-breaking yard has risen to 26 while over 50 people are either critically injured or missing, according to local government sources. The third largest ship graveyard in the world, Gadani has the capacity to break down over a 100 ships annually; more than a million tonnes of salvaged steel is then sold, much of it domestically.

While the ships have to be thoroughly cleaned before they are disassembled and disjointed as to avoid contact with toxic or inflammable material, the workers were forced to start the dismantling process even before the fuel tank could be cleaned of the remaining highly inflammable oil and fumes. According to reports, the intensity of the explosion could be felt in a radius of two kilometers with sheets of heavy metal and debris recovered from all around the burning ship. In addition, not only is there no way to determine how many workers are still trapped in the burning vessel, but the rescuers have no means to climb aboard the burning ship to douse the fire and bring out those trapped on the blazing ship, with the wreckage still being inaccessible. The state has banned any and all activities at the ship-breaking yard and a probe in currently underway.

Truth is, not only are industrial accidents becoming common in Pakistan with work places often forgoing basic safety measures, but the country lacks an elemental and comprehensive legislation to protect labor rights. Previously a deadly and devastating fire at a textile factory in Karachi killed 225 people in 2012. In an industry reputed to be even more dangerous than mining, regulation and inspection of safety standards are usually ignored, foregone, or not adequately catered for. Moreover, not only is there a lack of a safety mechanism, but workers are not even provided with the basic personal safety equipment that include hard helmets, leather safety shoes, fire extinguishers, protective gloves, overalls, first-aid emergency kits, or even regular check medical checkups that would determine if they’re even fit to work under conditions that could be very well termed as ‘dangerous’ and ‘hazardous’.

Gadani, situated in Balochistan, is tucked away on a 10km coastline. While the ship-yard provides employment to many impoverished surrounding areas, it is not a developed industry that is checked and balanced by an independent authority. It is unknown what policies the Baloch government has enacted for the labor employed in ship breaking as the working conditions are not just poor but are said to be atrocious. Plus, due to the nature of the work it is absolutely essential that there should exist proper medical services, a legal framework, and monetary compensation. There is no mechanism to meet such emergencies like fire, industrial accidents, and health hazards to workers. In fact there doesn’t even exist a well equipped fire and rescue services or even a fully functional hospital or clinic. Discounting these basic services, the thousands of laborers who work at the ship yard often have to travel long distances to get to work. Where the owners should provide them and their families with basic living facilities that might in the future trigger urban development and road networks, they instead exploit the workforce for profiteering.

At a time when industry is slowly picking up all over the country, such incidents put a dent in the optimism created by development. While it is the state’s job to ensure large scale accidents are avoided, it is primarily the owners’ responsibility to provide their workforce with the training, equipment, and facilities to deal with unwanted eventualities. With poor working conditions coupled with negligence, the accident was bound to happen. A total absence of safety measures at a ship breaking yard has no doubt contributed to that failure. Yet what remains to be seen is if factories, yards, mines, and assembling and dismantling lines will be upgraded according to modern global safety standards or if the probe into the incident will merely brush up ambiguity in trying to make working conditions better, safer, and also more cost effective and profit generative.

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