“I’VE seen two workers get killed and three injured by a piece of iron on a ship,” says Muhammed, who has worked for 10 years at the world’s most dangerous shipyard, Gadani, in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. “The workers weren’t aware of the dangling iron, as they were resting after doing some hard work in the yard, and all of a sudden that piece smashed into them.”

The three South Asian beach yards of Gadani, Chittagong in Bangladesh, and Alang in India account for 80 per cent of the global ship-breaking trade – as well the lives of thousands of workers who have been killed or maimed by this most hazardous of occupations, which involves the demolition or dismantling of ships into parts and raw materials.

Even on their lunch break, ship-breakers are dicing with death. On November 1, 2016, up to 39 workers – the exact toll is unknown – died in a huge explosion on board an oil tanker in Gadani, the worst ship-breaking accident on record.

Pakistan’s Khan slams IMF, then seeks bailout. Why the change?

Two years later, almost to the day, two fires broke out this month in the yard, injuring seven, a macabre parallel that emphasises how nothing has changed in this dirty and dangerously unregulated industry.

Nasir Mansoor, the deputy general secretary of Pakistan’s National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), reveals the terrifying daily grind for Gadani workers – 60 per cent have fled war-torn Afghanistan border towns, desperate for work that no others will do, even if wages are slightly higher than the average sweatshop job.

Mansoor says: “They don’t have any choice but to work in very dangerous conditions. There are not even any medical facilities on site, no emergency services, not even safe drinking water. This is skilled work, but the maximum they earn is 1,000 rupees [HK$105], to do 12 hours a day, with no holidays.”

Less than 1 per cent of the 70,000 ship-breakers have a trade union, as the likes of the NTUF aren’t even recognised. Gadani has seen a rise in incidents since oil tankers have been dumped on its beaches. Employers, keen to cut costs, don’t bother to clean the oil out of them before the welding and cutting begins, a process aptly called the “fireworks”.

“Yard owners are the main culprit and are very powerful, they know the rules, but don’t respect labour laws, which are very weak,” Mansoor says. “They bribe government departments and have cosy relationships with political parties and legislators.

“After the incident in 2016, there was a high commission and inquiry, but the results weren’t made public. It’s a lawless industry – there are no safety measures after 2016, it’s still the same.”

The NGO Ship-breaking Platform has been campaigning for improved global standards to stop ships at the end of their cycle illegally finding their way onto South Asian beaches. But it is hard to regulate the trade, which floats under the radar of the media and the public.

With CPEC, Pakistan risks Chinese anger by courting Saudi Arabia

Founder Ingvild Jenssen says there are too many “loopholes” for countries such as Germany and Greece; 90 per cent of ships from those countries end up at the beach yards.

“There are very few good guys in this industry,” she says, where a ship can be sold for US$14 million to a regulated recycling facility. “By choosing the beaches of India or Bangladesh, [shipowners] would earn US$1 million to US$2 million extra per vessel. They will always go with the money.”

Ship-breaking attracts crooked behaviour. Vessels are sold to middlemen for cash and their flags and names are changed so as to avoid any connection with its original owners.

“The cash buyers have close links to [Asian] beach facilities, either through joint businesses or family ties,” Jenssen says. “It’s a legitimate question to ask what actually happens to that money. Is there money laundering involved? What sort of business is this?”

Some countries and the European Union are making more of an effort to ensure ships are broken up safely, correct waste-management processes are in place and there’s minimal environmental impact – issues that South Asian yards either choose to ignore or, sometimes, have no knowledge about.

China is the fourth-biggest ship-breaking nation and has “several high quality ship recycling yards”, Jenssen says.

“It has a scheme to induce proper recycling of its own fleet. China is now focusing on its own waste and wants to stop being the dumping ground of the world’s waste.

“They’ve banned importing any foreign vessels, the scheme is only for Chinese-owned vessels.”

The industry has only sporadically tried to come together to solve its problems. In 2009, 63 countries agreed to the Hong Kong Convention [HKC], which brought in new ship-recycling initiatives. But these are rarely implemented in developing countries with threadbare infrastructure. Jenssen, who represented the NGOs, is critical of the HKC, which she says has been toothless and sets out the “bare minimum for recycling” – even “rubber stamping the beach ship-breaking methods”.

“You’re then asking for countries who are poor and don’t implement their own maritime laws to be held to account, how can they be?” Jenssen asks.

How Modi’s Rafale defence deal has left India lagging China, Pakistan

There is some begrudging change in the industry, which is worth US$5 billion a year. Every fire, every death, now brings unwanted publicity and television crews questioning employers and government tactics.

Muhammed Ali Shahin, coordinator for the Bangladeshi NGO Young Power in Social Action, says workers are slowly being educated on the dangers, and union rallies for change are now more coordinated and successful.

“In India and Bangladesh there is small change, they’re trying to ensure safety, there’s been a reduction in deaths, but we want them to comply with even stricter regulations, and who’s going to do that if it eats into their profits?” he says.

Yet relentless poverty and high unemployment stop the movement from gathering momentum in areas such as Gadani. Shahin adds: “Owners keep pushing workers into the danger areas and the people are desperate. In Gadani, the workers want to have a voice, but no one is listening to them.”

The threat of criminal charges and legal action provides possibly the biggest impetus towards a legitimate way of working. Last year, the British shipping firm Zodiac was sued by Chittagong worker Mohamed Edris, who was maimed and blinded by a falling propeller in 2015, and the case was settled out of court.

Earlier this year, directors of the Dutch firm Seatrade were charged and fined 750,000 (US$861,591) for illegally transferring four vessels to South Asia. In August, Norwegian company Eide Marine Group was criminally charged after its ship, Tide Carrier, was sold, its name and flag changed, and was caught being illegally transferred to Gadani.

“With these legal cases, shipping companies would be wise to look at their breaking practices,” Jenssen says. “If it’s criminal activity, their CEOs are risking jail time.”

In Pakistan, Chinese money grapples with a Karachi-Lahore divide

From January 1, there will be an EU list of approved recycling facilities by which shipowners must be governed if they want to trade within its borders. The industry has lobbied hard against this, saying the list isn’t big enough to accommodate the demand and there should be more leeway so Asian beach yards can make the grade, especially as China has closed its recycling borders to foreign ships.

Ship-breaking Platform disagrees. “The scaremongering of the shipping industry therefore needs to be debunked, and the European Commission should not bow down to the “fake news” spread by the shipowners,” it said in a press release.

The tide may be very slowly turning, but for now Muhammed and his Gadani co-workers are still at the mercy of unscrupulous shipping companies and yard breaking owners. “Extreme poverty is motivating us to work in such dangerous situations,” he says.

“Whenever we hear about any accidents or deaths in the yards, we become afraid. We want to have a safer working environment. We deserve some protection.”