The beginning of the new year has brought good news for the Pakistani workers in general and for the miners in particular as the government has finally decided to do long-awaited ratification of the ILO Convention on Safety and Health in Mines. The International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 176 -- Safety and Health in Mines was released in June 1995 and has been enforced in many countries.
Since then, the workers’ organizations, trade unions, local communities, and civil society in Pakistan, supported by the global union federations, had campaigned that the government, which, sadly, remained insensitive and indifferent for long to apathetic working conditions in the mines, should ratify and implement the Convention. But the government, at times on the behest of the mine owners, was reluctant to do so and managed to delay the action thus depriving some 300,000 workers and miners of their fundamental rights to safety and health, ignoring Article 37(e) of the Pakistan Constitution that directs the State to make provisions for securing just and humane conditions of work.
Globally, mining is recognized as among the most dangerous and unsafe industries for workers. Pakistan has a broad-based mineral sector having extensive deposits of coal, copper, iron ore, gold, zinc, lead, rock salt, and construction minerals like limestone and gypsum. At present over 50 minerals and elements are under exploitation in the country that are mined at surface or underground sites. The long list of minerals also includes rock phosphate, marble, granite, bauxite, bentonite, dolomite, calcite, silica sand, and others, besides various precious and semi-precious stones.
There are frequent accidents in the mines across the country, and reportedly an average of 300 miners die and other thousands suffer serious injuries in work-related accidents every year, mainly in coal mines. Ironically, there is no reliable data available about total persons employed in the mining sector, and also about the number of casualties suffered due to periodic accidents at work. This is for many reasons. Forced or bonded labor is employed, including teenagers, in violation of labor laws. These workers, though made to work for long hours -- up to 14 hours a day routinely in extreme weather conditions, are paid very low wages. Then, seldom are the accidents reported to avoid payment of compensation to victims or their families as per rules.
Corruption and laxity on the part of government authorities to effectively implement labor laws and policies is common in privately-owned mines as well as in the public sector, medium or small. Therefore, regulating and inspection of mine mechanisms is poor and ineffective. The prevalent laws are obsolete, outdated and non-conforming to international practices. Mines Act 1923 is still applicable, but, ironically even the safety measures described therein are not followed today. Pakistan, with some of the largest coal reserves in the world, mostly employs manual and semi-mechanized mining practices. Annual coal extraction is around eight million tons, which is used in brick kilns, cement industry and power generation.
Hazardous conditions by inherent neglect and poor working conditions pose real threat to miners’ lives. There is a very high risk of death and injuries from explosions, cave-ins and equipment accidents in the mines and quarries, with most fatal and non-fatal accidents occurring in coalmines. These accidents and incidents are not properly reported or recorded. In mineral-rich Balochistan alone, which operates about 350 major coal mines and thousands of small unregulated coal mines employing some 40,000 workers, where mining activities are in progress in six remote and isolated areas, on average at least 120 workers die each year. According to recent reports, six coal-miners lost their lives in December 2022 in an explosion in a coalmine in Harnai District.
Darra Adam Khel near Peshawar has recently emerged as a coal mining hub that employs some 15,000 miners. Most of these mines are illegal. Many cases of accidents have been reported in the area in recent years. On November 30, 2022 nine miners were killed and another four injured in Orakzai District as a result of an explosion caused due to gas-build-up, collapsing the coal mine. Unfortunately, such horrific accidents resulting in death, injury and destitution to workers continue unabated. In fact, the plight of miners has worsened during recent years due to growing unemployment and indifferent attitude of the government. The situation is compounded by a depressing law & order position and terrorism.
Miners are exposed to dangers of methane gas poisoning, suffocation from carbon monoxide. Generally, no safety gears are provided to the miners, proper ventilation is absent, and hazardous gas detection equipment is not available at site. Likewise, rescue equipment, firefighting equipment, and ambulances are inadequate, if available. Mining industry is devastated with occupational diseases too. Exposure to coal leads to various health issues including serious lung and heart diseases and spinal injuries. Sadly, healthcare facilities at or near the mine site are not adequate and maintained.
The ILO Convention on Safety and Health in Mines sets out a framework to create a safe mining environment with requirements for mine-owners and rights for workers thereby building inspection mechanisms that can enforce safety. Thus, implementation of the Convention is expected to help develop a more socially comprehensive and environmentally responsive domestic mining industry that could be internationally accepted. But, will it be possible to implement the Convention effectively to achieve the objective of minimizing the continuing loss of lives in the mines in near future? Mineral sector’s legislative and fiscal regime is the domain of the federal government but provinces are major stakeholders. This presents a challenge. To be effective the Convention will need to be strictly implemented by the provincial governments, which is not likely so given the present political and governance conditions.
Will creating the right framework to address the safety issues in the mines remain a pipedream ever for the miners and civil society, one ponders?
The writer is a retired Chairman of the State Engineering Corporation