June 25, 2010 § 1 Comment
The 15,000-strong Gadani ship-breakers‘ strike was suspended last week, after the owners promised to heed the workers’ demands by the 30th of June. The draft agreement to this effect was approved at a meeting of the union on the 16th, which was attended by some 3,000 workers from the dozens of sites across the shoreline.
The workers remain wary of the intentions of their employers, of course. The owners’ association has offered the union a 20% increase in compensation–but, as the press release appended below makes clear, not only is the concession trivial in relation to the rising cost of living (and in relation to the super-profits made by owners and contractors alike), it addresses only one of the several demands made by the union. Only two days ago, for example, a 25 year-old worker fell to his death while working on a ship’s ladder in near-darkness. A harness would have saved him.
At a press conference in Karachi yesterday, representatives of the Ship Breaking Democratic Workers’ Union emphasized their readiness to take further strike action. Suspicions are that the owners’ association will stand its ground, and full preparations have been made for a further round of struggle.
A translation of the full press release is after the break. Messages of solidarity can be sent to progpak[at]gmail.com, or to ntufpak[at]gmail.com.
Dear journalists and friends,
We stand before you today in an effort to highlight an issue of critical importance.
We represent more than 15,000 workers from the ship-breaking industry, who toil under unspeakable conditions in the coastal town of Gadani, Balochistan. Despite it being the 21st century, workers in our industry are deprived of basic necessities, and their fundamental rights under the laws of the land. In an industry that, yearly, yields billions of rupees and is the source of much of the steel used in other industries, workers find themselves the victims of heinous exploitation, forced to live a life not worthy of animals.
Despite working for twelve to fourteen hours a day, workers receive between 200 and 300 rupees, and remain unregistered in any government social security institution through which they could access medical facilities. Despite having worked for ten to fifteen years, they don’t have formal confirmation of their employment status. Even though the conditions of work are arduous, there are next to no workplace safety guidelines—they are not provided safety shoes, gloves, goggles, helmets, belts, or other necessary safety items. As a result of this neglect, in the last year some 17 workers have died on the job. There is no clean water to drink, nor any reasonable food provided. Neither are workers given decent accommodation, nor is there any hospital nearby that could guarantee emergency treatment in the event of an accident.
Despite the fact that ship-breaking has all the characteristics of industrial work, workers are deprived of all the rights and facilities that are legally theirs. Aggravated by this state of affairs, they have been requesting that their employers raise wages in line with recent levels of inflation, bring health and safety provisions up to standard, and register them with the government’s social programs (especially social security and OBI). But employers have responded to these entirely just demands with derision—they have made full use of the contract system and mafia-type tactics to repel the workers’ requests, and keep them quiet and afraid.
As a result of all this, on the 12th of June the workers delivered notice to their employers that they would be planning on a peaceful strike, pending the resolution of their demands. The employers chose not to accept the ultimatum, or even engage in dialogue with the workers. As a result of this, three days later on the 15th of June, 15,000 workers from 50 different workplaces went on strike. Unsuccessful in attempts to stop this by harassment and intimidation, the employers summoned the local establishment, the police, and the Anti-Terrorist Task Force to launch a lathi-charge and use tear-gas in order to violently disperse the protests. When this failed to stop the strike, police arrested five of the union’s leaders—however, this only caused the remaining workers to hold a rally demanding their leaders’ release.
The Ship Breaking Democratic Workers’ Union, which represents the 15,000 workers at Gadani (as evidenced by the massively successful strike), has every intention of resolving these conflicts peacefully. It is the employers, however, who—by choosing the path of violent repression—have been the cause of the grave conflict at Gadani. Even still, the union unconditionally accepted the local establishment’s request that the employers be given till the 30th of June to implement the workers’ fundamental demands.
It is important to stress that it was only after consultation with the workers that the union agreed to suspend the strike. Already the owners have shown that they will try and undermine the agreement. On the advice of their managers, they announced a 20% increase in compensation—however, not only was this already promised last year, but it is also profoundly inadequate in this environment of rapidly increasing inflation. Most importantly, it is being offered in an attempt to ignore the more fundamental issues at-hand. Until these are resolved, the union will remain vigilant. It is not possible to address the workers’ basic grievances with these piecemeal concessions.
Fellow journalists! On average, about 140 ships are kept at Gadani. Each of these weighs about 30,000 tonnes, and its dismantling requires about 200 to 250 workers working for three months. The scrap metal is sold for 45,000 rupees per ton, while each worker’s daily pay is, at most, 300 rupees. Recently the navy ship Lady Diana was brought to Gadani in order to be broken down. It weighed some 38,000 tonnes, and had been bought for 480,000,000 rupees. It took four months to dismantle, and from the work the owner of the ship-breaking yard made off with 1,710,000,000 rupees. This, remember, was just one of the ships at Gadani—the fact that workers dismantle 140 ships every three months gives you some idea of the kind of profits that the owners make. In addition to the value of the scrap metal, of course, employers can sell other parts of the ship for profit—machinery, other forms of metal, and wood, for example. From each ship, also, the owners can extract large quantities of oil.
All this while workers, collectively, make only 6,800,000 rupees per ship, and the contractor—who has no legal right to play the role he does—makes off with as much as 2,500,000 rupees. This gives you an idea of the level of exploitation in the industry.
Fellow journalists! Via the mediation of the journalists of Karachi, these workers urge the Provincial Government of Balochistan, the Federal Government, and the ship-breaking owners to—in line with the gravity of the situation—enter into dialogue with the genuine representatives of these workers, with the intention of respecting the demands made by the Gadani workers.
If, as promised, these have not been accepted by the 30th of June, the workers will be fully justified in going to any lengths to force the issue—including an indefinite strike.