ARMY OF MIGRANTS
In Alang, the world's biggest shipbreaking area, more than 90 percent of the workers are poor and unskilled migrants from Northern India: Orissa, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
A group of workers next to their shacks
Alang, India - Poor, unqualified and a migrant: This is the identikit of the average worker in the shipbreaking yards of Alang, Gujarat. The largest shipbreaking site, in which hundreds of companies operate, employs tens of thousands of workers from the poorest regions of India: Bihar, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. Arkid Jena, 36, is one of them. He was born in a small village in Orissa, but has been living and working in Alang, on plot number 25, for 22 years. He started working here when he was 14. He goes home just once a year to see his family. There are more than 30,000 migrant workers just like him. They are the backbone of this economy which numbers 167 shipyards along 10km of coast in Alang, all dedicated to the demolition of cargo ships and oil tankers, the majority of which come from Western countries. These workers live in shacks made of wood and sheets of metal, one leaning against the other. They have no toilets, electricity or running water. But for this accommodation they must pay a monthly rent of about 500 Indian rupees ($7.50).
“The Gujarat Maritime Board, the institution that manages all activities in Alang, has created some dormitories for the workers, to move them from the shacks,” explains Vidyadhar Rane, the general secretary of the only union active in Alang. “But it is a pity that the number of places available, 1,000, is nowhere near enough to cover the needs of the thousands of immigrant workers. Moreover, the buildings have been placed several kilometres away from the shipyards, where these people have to go every morning under a boiling hot sun because there is no public transport.”
Shaving on a Sunday morning in Alang
They eat and sleep on the floor, and they share everything, even, sometimes, their salary. If one of them is unable to work because they are sick or injured, they go without pay, so the others must take care of their needs. As an example, Arkid points to a fellow resident of his shack with an injured leg. “He hasn’t been working for a week and will not be able to get back for a while,” he says. “He is not earning any money, so we have to support him. Without solidarity, we could not survive.” It is a solidarity born, in part, from the fact that in this part of the camp, all of the men come from the same village in Orissa.
Small communities have also been formed in other parts of the camp as almost all the men from entire villages in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar have also made their way here over the years. Tunaka, who asked not to disclose his full name, is 19, and has been in Alang for two years. He was a minor when he started work here. Although child labour is officially forbidden in the shipyards, there are many minors here. They are often recruited as substitutes for older workers, for short periods of time. There is a very simple reason: they cost less. They are less qualified, but more agile. They work in several yards, particularly the smaller ones. “It is hard work, but we have no other choice,” Tunaka says. “Back home we have no opportunities and we have to feed our families.”
Migrant workers from Orissa in their small village near Alang's main road
“In July, a worker from plot number 69 died, smashed under a piece of a ship which fell from high up,” says Arkid. “The employer awarded his family 750,000 rupees [$11,000] in damages.” According to the NGO, Care Environment, which focuses on the effects of shipbreaking on the environment along the Alang Coast, there have been some improvements in safety standards on some of the yards that buttress the coast on this side of Gujarat, but the working conditions remain extremely dangerous.
“Some shipbreaking yards started to pay more attention to the safety of the workers, giving them helmets and boots, and to the environment,” says Shwetal Shah, the director of the NGO. “Some of them now handle toxic waste with more care, dismantling it in controlled areas. However, these are just a few; the majority of the shipbreaking yards still have very low standards of safety.” With only two hospitals and as many as 50,000 workers when there has been an influx of ships, accessing medical care when injured is difficult in Alang. “The only two hospital structures in the area are the Red Cross Hospital and a private hospital with only 28 beds,” explains Rane from the General Employees’ Union.
“[It is a] completely inadequate infrastructure to support the number of workers who are often injured on the worksite, sometimes very seriously.” The nearest hospital that is able to treat serious injuries is in Bhavnagar, around 60km away. That is a one-and-half hour drive from the shipbreaking yards – an often fatal distance for the workers of Alang. The Gujarat Maritime Board, the government department in charge of Alang, did not respond to our requests for comment.
A bowl of rice is usually what the workers eat during the day