Gadani is located about 60 km south-west of Karachi, on a 10 km long stretch of coastline, it is the largest ship-breaking yard in the world after Alang in India and Chittagong in Bangladesh. According to Hina Mahgul Rind (Nikkei Asia Review, 17 June 2015), Gadani was the world's largest ship-breaking site in the 1980s, where oil tankers and bulk carriers were taken there to be dismantled. Even now, metal gathered from the Gadani shipbreaking yards meets 80% of steel demand by local rerolling and melting mills and generates 10 billion rupees ($98 million) in revenue for the government annually. This is the estimate made by Dewan Rizwan, chairman of the Pakistan Ship Breaking Association (PSBA). In this region of Balochistan, shipbreaking is still the largest industry and the yards supply steel to about 300 mills. There are two main threats to the industry: a) European regulations, b) import of steel from China at dumping prices. Working conditions are bad. According again to Hina Mahgul Rina, "the roughly 6,000 workers at Gadani take on jobs at their own peril. There are few safety regulations, and certainly no contracts or insurance to fall back on. If a worker dies on the job, his family can only hope the labor union will fork out the mere 200,000 rupees (about 2000 USD) that is often only verbally promised." If they are injured, workers have no local hospital to go to and have to be driven to Karachi for treatment. And they take these risks for wages of three USD a day. PSBA's cairman Rizwan freely admits that Gadani lacks the basic facilities such as access to medical care, clean drinking water, electricity, a sewage system, schools and public infrastructure. But he said that it is the fault of the local Gadani government and not the shipbreaking industry. He said that despite paying high taxes to the federal and provincial authorities, little has been done to improve the area. Rizwan also claims that the Gadani yards have better conditions than others in Pakistan. Environmentalists disagree. Ahmer Bilal Soofi, president of the World Wide Fund for Nature Pakistan, said to Hina Mahgul Rind that current practices of the shipbreaking industry are extremely hazardous, not only to the people involved, but also to the marine life and the overall environment of the area". For comparison, in Bangladesh, the shipbreaking industry is to blame for wiping out 21 species of marine life and endangering another 11, according to the Institute of Marine Sciences and Fisheries at the University of Chittagong.
Ships are often full of toxics such as asbestos, lead, ozone depleting substances, PCBs and heavy metals. Little care is given to worker safety or protection of the environment. The toxics sicken the workers and ravage coastal ecosystems. The muddy sand and shifting grounds of tidal beaches cannot support adequate heavy lifting equipment or rapid emergency response, therefore accidents maim or kill countless of workers each year. While ships were dismantled in Europe and Japan in the 70s, the introduction of stricter laws and regulations to protect workers and the environment prompted the shift of shipbreaking activities to South Asia where laws are poorly enforced. The shipbreaking practices in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have been strongly criticized by local and international groups that demand decent working conditions and environmental justice. As end-of-life vessels contain large amounts of hazardous waste, these ships are governed by international waste laws such as the UN Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste. An amendment to the Basel Convention which has not yet entered into force at the international level, but is transposed to European Union law via the Waste Shipment Regulation, prohibits any export of hazardous waste from the EU to developing countries.
A new EU Regulation on Ship Recycling only allows for ships flying the flag of an EU Member State to be recycled in facilities listed by the European Commission as compliant with European standards. However, it is easy to change flags.
Pakistan's shipbreaking industry is also being challenged by cheap metals exported by China. "Chinese producers are looking for avenues to dump their steel products, and Pakistan is a prime target," said Hussain Agha, CEO of Agha Steel, who also blamed China for hampering growth in the Pakistani shipbreaking industry. Even if Chinese imports continue to grow, experts said that local shipbreakers can at least ensure that business from EU ships continue to flow this way provided that their yards comply with EU rules. To that end, the Center for Rule of Law, a nonprofit organization that promotes legal rights in Pakistan, has filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Balochistan High Court to try and force the federal government to wrest control of the industry from the local government. It is hoped that the federal authorities would then oversee EU compliance. The center has also drawn up a draft law that includes provisions for worker safety, compensation, and the recycling of waste and hazardous materials, in line with International Labour Organization guidelines. The draft law, if adopted by the government, would set the blueprint for industry regulation.
As shipbreaking takes place in a very remote location local mobilisation is difficult. Workers organise in trade unions - one of them a yellow union, one of them more independent - to demand their rights. As the waste dumping occurrs in a sparsely populated area, which is also located in a conflict area, the local population has very little means to contest the industry.