Social rights matter more than growth for development

 “Every day on the shipbreaking yard can be your last”

The Oriental N (a vessel that became notorious under the original name Exxon Valdez) ended up on one of the beach yards of Alang, India

(c) Pradeep Shukla

Dhammabhai Kudesha’s face and posture betray the tell-tale signs of a hard life, though it was the summer of 2018 that was too much, even for him. I see an old man whose eyes can still see but are devoid of light and a sorrow-filled powerlessness when I talked to him about his son in Alang in September 2018.

The missing son

Bhuddabhai was 33. On August 31, like on every other working day, he woke up around 6 in the morning, when the first morning light starts colouring the darkness and silence in his village on the Gulf of Khambha. His eight-year-old son and two daughters, aged six and four, were still sleeping but his wife was already up and preparing their breakfast. Six years ago, Bhuddabhai managed to get a job on the shipbreaking yards of Alang, situated about 3km from their house. He knew how rare it was for a Kholi, originally a fisherman’s caste but now mostly day labourers in seasonal agriculture, to find work in that industry.

Bhuddabhai was able to earn a living by collecting furniture, dishes, taps, lamps, fake paintings and other small and big items from the ships’ living quarters

Sure, he didn’t work as a gas cutter, one of the most sought-after positions. He’d only had three years of formal schooling after all. But still, Bhuddabhai was able to earn a living by collecting furniture, dishes, taps, lamps, fake paintings and other small and big items from the ships’ living quarters. He was busy removing toilets from the MV Ocean Gala on the morning of the accident. His employer would later sell all these items to the second-hand shops that line the road to Alang for 10km on both sides. It wasn’t a particularly well-paid job, but it certainly made a better living than the farm work his father and younger brother Rajabhai did. Bhuddabhai would often lend them a hand on Sundays or before he left for the yards on his Honda Hero Splendor at 7.30 in the morning.

August 31 marked the last time Bhuddabhai took the dusty road from his home to the Honey Ship Breaking yard. I visit Alang only a few days later and the exact circumstances of the accident are still murky when I talk to his family. What is clear is that a piece of the hull must have broken off unexpectedly or in an unforeseen manner, taking Bhuddabhai down with it as well as Ali Ahmed, the gas cutter who was cutting through the steel on the ship’s ninth floor to create an extra exit. Neither of the two men, or the other workers, were wearing safety belts. Nor were they required to, said Raj Bansal, the shipyard owner. The workers were inside the ship; only cutters working on the ship’s exterior must wear safety belts.

Dhammabhai heard the tragic news from his other son Rajabhai, who was alerted by locals who themselves received word about Bhuddabhai’s accident from fellow workers on the yard. Bhuddabhai was brought to the public hospital in Bhavnagar, a provincial town of some 700,000 inhabitants, a little more than 50km from Alang. It takes more than an hour to cover that distance over the narrow two-lane road, which is littered with speed bumps and bristling with idle cows, trucks and dangerous traffic. His fall was too steep, the journey to hospital care too long. Dhammabhai buries his face in his white turban. Exactly one month before the accident, Rajabhai explains, his mother died.

Which god did Bhuddabhai pray to? Who was on the family altar, I ask. “Chamunda,” says nephew Khanjibhai, who assists Bhuddabhai’s father and brother during the interview. It is hard to think of a goddess further removed from the overcrowded Hindu pantheon, with its sugary, Pantone-coloured gods and comforting round shapes. Chamunda has bulging eyes, an emaciated body with protruding ribs and bones, and is often depicted with bloodied hands or teeth. She is a goddess who incarnates the raw suffering of human life at the bottom dredges of society. She does not provide soothing comfort, but reminds that strength is found in the unrelenting, daily struggle that is the human condition.

I ask what Bhuddabhai’s widow and family expect from his employer. “Nothing,” they say, an answer that packs centuries of humiliation and marginalisation.

I ask what Bhuddabhai’s widow and family expect from his employer. “Nothing,” they say, an answer that packs centuries of humiliation and marginalisation. Kholis have never had to expect anything from India’s wealthy or upper castes. But when I press the question, it becomes clear that there is more to the family’s seeming passive acceptance; there also is the comfort of knowing that today might be different after all. The Honey Ship Breaking yard owner paid 25,000 rupees (€300) for Bhuddabhai’s funeral – an amount that did not cover its full cost but certainly helped the family stay out of debt for the time being. And the ship owner, they say, is filing compensation paperwork.

Whether the family will receive full compensation and how much money they might receive, the brother and the nephew don’t yet know. Bansal, the yard owner, is affirmative when I talk to him a few days later – there will be a compensation of around €6,250, an amount that corresponds to three years of work on the yard. But a pension for the Bhuddabhai’s widow, Bansal says, is not in the cards.

Today though, the mute desperation on Dhammabhai’s face suggests, the loss cuts too deep to even be thinking about money matters. But he knows, or rather, hopes that the Alang Sosiya Ship Recycling & General Workers Association (ASSRGWA) will keep a close eye on the case, even if Bhuddabhai was not a union member. When I speak to Vidyadhar Rane, the union’s secretary-general, he confirms that he will do whatever it takes to defend the rights of the widows of Bhuddabhai and Ahmed, the other shipyard worker who died in the accident.

Two sides to every story

“There is no union in Alang,” says Nikhil Gupta, co-owner of Rudra Green Ship Recycling. “And that makes doing business in Gujarat so nice; we have no unions because everybody is on the same page.” Gupta makes this surprising – and patently untrue – statement at the end of an interview during which the tried to explain the economic laws of demand and supply that govern the byzantine world of globalised shipping and shipbreaking. Or, as industry captains like him prefer to say, “ship recycling”. He is quick to disparage the efforts of Rane, the union secretary-general . “That man is from Mumbai,” he says, refusing to even mention him by name. “He has no following here.”

Although the other yard owners I speak to aren’t as dismissive, no-one has anything resembling a formal relation with the union. Nor do they engage is collective bargaining at the company or – God forbid – sectoral level. “When there are problems, we deal with the workers directly. Much faster that way,” says Nitin Kanakiya, the secretary of the Ship Recycling Industry Association (SRIA) and the owner of Triveni Yard in Alang.

The workers themselves take a less rosy view. Rakesh Kumar wouldn’t want his sons, now 15 and 13, to join him on the shipbreaking yards. “The work is far too dangerous,” he says. Kumar is a migrant worker, as are the vast majority of labourers in yards in Alang and Sosiya, a lesser-known neighbouring village that has also lost its beaches to the shipbreaking industry. They hail from other Indian states, some situated more than a 1,000km to the east of Alang – places like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

Alang is not a good place to bring your wife and children, they say. It’s hard enough as it is to find a bed for one man.

Most of them came on their own. Alang is not a good place to bring your wife and children, they say. It’s hard enough as it is to find a bed for one man. Lodging prices increased tenfold in the villages that line the shipbreaking yards and even though it’s been five years since the Indian Supreme Court ordered for safe and affordable housing to be built, not a single dormitory has opened. Every employer I speak to repeats the same line – the housing is all but ready. But the promised dormitories, if they ever see the light of day, will accommodate a thousand workers at most, when the yard workforce averages 30,000 men.

“The laws to protect workers are insufficient and they are not enforced,” says Dr Sahu Geetanjoy, a researcher at the Tata Institute for Social Studies in Mumbai and one of just a few academics studying labour conditions in the shipbreaking industry. The government’s own financial interests may explain tepid interest to enforce labour and environmental rules, he says. Through taxes and the leasing of beach plots, the shipbreaking industry contributes around 7 billion rupees (€87.5 million) to the Gujarat state coffers per year. This helps explain why the successive approaches of the Congress-led governments (1983 – 1998) and BJP governments (1999 – 2018) hardly show any differences.

“During the state assembly elections of December 2017, both the current Indian Prime Minister [and long-time Gujarat Chief Minister] Narendra Modi and Congress supremo Rahul Gandhi went all the way to support their parties in Gujarat. During the campaign, both of them visited more than 20 temples. None of them visited Alang. It is not difficult to see where the real priorities are,” Dr Geetanjoy says with a sigh. This summer, Gandhi was scheduled to visit the shipbreaking town, but the visit was cancelled at the last moment.

Help is not on the way

When I ask Rane, the ASSRGWA secretary-general, which needs the government should address in 2019, the trade unionist recites a list of demands that ought to have been met some time ago. “Housing. Toilets. Canteens. Correctly paid overtime. Paid vacation days. Health and accidents insurance for everybody. Adequate hospital capacity.” The latter can mean the difference between life and death when disaster strikes.

Workers with serious injuries need to be transported all the way to Bhavnagar with one of just two ambulances

Still today, workers with serious injuries need to be transported all the way to Bhavnagar with one of just two ambulances. In Alang, there is a small, 10-bed clinic run by the Indian Red Cross, as well as the Alang Hospital, which has 20 beds. That is insufficient, to say the least, for an area that spans almost 160 yards and a population of between 15,000 to 30,000 people who are dismantling giant ships in dangerous circumstances.

In 2013, the Indian Supreme Court took a similar view and ordered the Gujarat Labour and Employment Department to do something about the yawning gap between existing health needs and the available care by building a 100-bed health facility. The shipyard owners’ first response was to question the validity of the court order because it made reference to industrial regulations and, they said, Alang should not be considered an industry because it “breaks” rather than “produces”. This shallow semantic reasoning was summarily rejected by the court. Yet it later became clear that a health facility is only mandatory by law when “at least 25,000 employees [are] registered under this scheme. However, in the case of Alang-Sosiya, a total of only 16,067 workers were registered,” Dr Geetanjoy says.

“Much has changed for the better in the past 10 years,” Rane adds. “It is accepted, in principle, that employers should ensure all workers are insured. That they get all the protective personal gear prescribed. That they should pay at least minimum wages. But we only just started the journey to decent work on these shipbreaking yards. There is much distance to be covered before all that is compulsory today will also be provided and even when that happens, it would still be a far cry from real decent work.”

Unions and employers do seem to see eye to eye on the strategic way forward – India has to ratify the Hong Kong Convention for Safe and Ecologically Sound Ship Recycling as soon as possible and all shipbreaking facilities must take steps to comply with the convention at the earliest date possible. Because that is where Alang’s future lies. Both Rane and Komalkant F. Sharma, owner of the Leela Group of Companies, say that the ship recycling industry “will only become economically sustainable if and when it becomes ecologically and socially sustainable.”

And there’s the rub – will it ever?

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