GADDANI, Pakistan (Reuters) - Mehdi Hassan was clinging to a greasy rope, toiling high inside the hull of an oil tanker, when he became another victim of lax safety standards at Pakistan’s Gaddani ship breaking yard.
He suddenly slipped and fell to the floor in the dark. Unable to move all night with broken bones, and with no one around to help, he choked to death on toxic fumes.
“A steel section was cut out from the ship and when it fell into the sea, light came into the hull and we saw Mehdi’s body. His face was bloated, purple and green,” said Mohammad Saleem, one of the workers who found Hassan.
“The next morning we had to work as if nothing had happened. We are treated like dogs and the owners don’t care if we die.”
Pakistan is full of dangers, with tens of thousands of victims of suicide bombings, sectarian violence and ethnic bloodshed which make big headlines across the world.
There is another less dramatic, but dark, side of the South Asian nation that rarely captures attention -- the large number of impoverished people forced to endure horrible conditions at work to survive.
Fifteen thousand of them risk their lives every day, tearing down ships at Gaddani beach on the Arabian Sea coast, a 10 km-long death trap. They earn as little as $4 a day.
Any second a giant steel plate can fall and crush dozens of people at a time. High tension cables often snap and decapitate. Deadly chemicals can slowly kill workers.
Dozens died last year disemboweling vessels at an astonishing pace at the ship breaking yard, one of the biggest in the world.
All kinds of ageing vessels -- from Japanese ore carriers to Italian passenger ferries -- are run ashore for scrapping.
A global downturn in shipping means more vessels are expected to land here, increasing the chances of fatal accidents. Activists worry the boom will encourage further disregard of safety and environmental guidelines.
“Ship breaking companies make a lot of money but don’t do anything to help or protect the workers that make it possible for them to earn so much,” said Nasir Mansoor, a representative of the National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan.
“Millions of dollars, and yet there is no pressure on them to even provide clean drinking water and helmets to their workers. This is a national shame.”
Safety and environment regulations exist in Pakistan. Ship-breaking companies are supposed to provide protective equipment like helmets and gloves, and arrange for the safe handling of toxic materials. But they are seldom enforced.
The cash-strapped government is unlikely to clamp down hard on Gaddani because it is a rare economic success story in a country where many industries are crippled by power cuts, a lack of foreign investment and security threats from militants.
Salvaging almost a million tonnes of steel a year, Gaddani is the third largest ship breaking yard in the world. Metal from the yard is sold to mills across Pakistan, meeting about 70 percent of the country’s steel requirement in 2011.
Profits for ship breakers vary with fluctuating steel prices, but Pakistani tax officials estimated ship breaking companies’ average revenue per vessel at over $4.5 million in the 2011/12 financial year.
“We do what we can. We are trying to provide better safety and health facilities to workers at Gaddani but we also have to look at our budget,” said Nur Kibzai, a labor official.
Another official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told Reuters that the scale of the ship breaking industry also prevents the government from taking stronger action.
“We need to be careful with how we approach enforcement for an industry like this because we need to promote it for two reasons; it brings in substantial revenue and it employs thousands,” the official said .
Historically, ships were broken down at home bases where they were built, before high costs and safety and environmental laws drove the business to less strict developing countries.
Each year around 800 ships are sent to breaking yards, with about 80 percent ending up on South Asian maritime graveyards like Gaddani, according to Shipbreaking Platform, a non-governmental coalition of human rights organizations.
Workers in torn overalls that easily catch fire risk their lives just walking through the yard -- an apocalyptic mix of rusty machinery, jagged-edged steel and giant ship engines on the oil-stained shore.
Apprentice Abdul Rab, 20, is still haunted by the whipping sound he heard just before a cable sliced a co-worker in half.
“It was so quick that he didn’t even get a chance to scream,” he said.
Today, ship breaking companies in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh -- the industry leaders -- are vying for more vessels as intense competition between them drives wages even lower.
Laborers at Gaddani who used to make $6 a day are now putting in the same hours for $4, a tough drop in the face of rising costs in Pakistan, especially for basic items like food.
A shortage of jobs in Pakistan means young men like Zardad Khan, 18, will keep flocking to Gaddani, knowing they could die on the job.
“This isn’t work for human beings,” Khan said, standing on top of the carcass of a South Korean grain ship.
When falling objects don’t kill workers, dangerous chemicals like mercury and lead do.
The European Commission estimates that 40,000 to 1.3 million tonnes of toxic materials on derelict ships are exported each year to South Asia from Europe alone.
Chemicals leak from the ships, staining the sea water and sand around the work space. Scores of workers suffer from skin and respiratory diseases as a result.
“When I am inside the ship using the cutter, often the smoke from chemicals makes me cough and I can’t breathe,” said Daud Khan, 16, his arms scarred by burns. “Many nights, I stay up coughing and there is blood.”
Rizwan Farooqi, chairman of the Pakistan Ship Breakers Association, acknowledged the dangers. But he says it’s up to the government to improve safety standards.
“Safety is an issue, and it is something we are trying to improve. But it is mainly the government’s task to ensure this,” he said.
“The authorities still haven’t set up proper electricity or water infrastructure. We have to do that ourselves .”
With no one willing to take responsibility, workers who earn can only afford to buy old, faulty gear that offers no protection against catastrophes like one in November.
Three laborers cutting sections of a ship’s fuel tank were burned alive when vapor exploded.
“We ran towards the explosion but we knew they were dead even before we got there,” said worker Allah Ditta.
“When the fire was finally put out, there was nothing left of them.”
Additional reporting by Imtiaz Shah in KARACHI and Gul Yusufzai in QUETTA; Editing by Michael Georgy and Sanjeev Miglani