Workers in Sarafa Bazaar sat twiddling their thumbs when markets were in lockdown during March as Covid-19 cases spiked for the first time in the country.
Now, each time case numbers climb, they fear another lockdown.
Situated in the Napier Quarters, Sarafa Bazaar is the oldest gold markets of the city. In the heart of Mithadar, the old city workers, wholesalers, as well as retailers lament the dilapidated conditions of the market and government neglect in matters of infrastructure and security.
A quick glance across the market reveals only empty showrooms with some activity around gold refineries and labs. There is a distinct social order there too.
On top are the retailers, following them are wholesalers, and at the bottom of this order are the informal workers – sweepers, smelters, polishers, niara dealers, and furnace workers, who transform the residue into molten gold.
Shaukat Ali aka Chhota Ustad said they were struggling. He works with ‘niara’, which is the waste collected from shops, labs, refineries, and even the streets of the bazaar.
“Collecting niara is an elaborate task. Retailers, workshop owners, polishers – basically everyone working with gold and other precious metals in the market – collects their waste in a bin (for a year or two)... we buy that bin,” he explained. Sometimes the shop owners might also ask Ali to ‘dust’ their carpet to collect particles of gold that might have escaped during work, some others would sell him the carpet.
Walking on the uneven streets of the bazaar, one can see some men sweeping with carpet brushes. Using a dustpan, they put the collected waste, along with all the usual paraphernalia of cigarette butts, plastic wrappers, soil, etc, in a metal bowl. Later, it is bagged and sold to a contractor who either takes it to a refinery, if he owns one, or sells it to someone like Muhammad Ramzan.
Ramzan owns a small blast furnace and Ali works with him alongside his team of labourers. They deal with waste from all over the market.
To demonstrate the process of extracting metals inside the congested shop, they turn on the furnace at full blast. Quickly, the unit is filled with toxic fumes and heat, making it difficult to breathe. One worker turns on the big exhaust on the ceiling.
“Gold is not the only metal we get from this waste,” Ramzan said, explaining that jewelers had to mix copper and silver to make ornaments.
“We get the waste in rock form from the refineries too, which after passing through the furnace is further processed to purify gold,” he said, pointing to burnt charcoal, borax, and fuming acid recently taken out of an oven which his workers use to refine gold.
Many retail showrooms have a workshop, where artisans prepare ornaments both by hand, using traditional tools, and via machines. Traditional work has been on a steady decline, not only because of higher cost but also due to time constraints.
The price of the waste depends on the amount of work that was carried out in the shop. If a shop did well, the waste would likely have higher gold residue, thus fetching a higher price for its niara.
A jewellery shop owner, Muhammad Aslam said he collected the shop waste, and even cleaning solutions after use to sell to the “niara collector” after a year. But it all depended on how much gold went through the shop in a year.
With the rising price of gold, and lower buying power due to a slower economy, jewelers were not doing well, he said, claiming that four-five years ago, he sold the waste in 3-4 months.
“Now, selling about 40-50 tola of jewellery in a year would roughly get me around Rs100,000-150,000 for one jerrycan of waste,” he said, showing the contents of the can, the dustpan and a polythene bag filled with liquid waste.
The price is also determined by the weight, as well as the expected recovery of gold by the niara collector. Each shop is laid with a roughly woven jute mat to collect gold dust.
Anything and everything is sold from the dust in a drawer to the sludge from the gutters. It is an ingenious but informal industry; tasked with collecting every last particle of gold as well as other precious metals in the market.
Zargaran Welfare Association President M Irfan said that 75 percent of the workers in the market suffered hunger and malaise. “It was only after Covid-19 lockdown that we realised the dire state of the workers further down the value chain.”
Even right now, people mostly visited the market to sell their jewellery, not to buy anything. Some were even desperate to sell trinkets. So, there was not enough work to do because of the rising gold prices. “It started at Rs113,800/tola in the morning, if I want to buy gold it is Rs113,900/tola,” he said.
“When someone brings in old jewellery, it is first taken to a lab for evaluation. After the lab certificate, the gold is smelted at a refinery to turn it into bits. The bits are then flattened, rolled, or stretched to design jewellery,” the president of the workers association said, detailing the receiving, evaluation, refining, and by-product recycling process.
Working at the furnace and refinery are high risk, but none of the workers wear any protective gear or safety equipment, neither are they registered with the social security system. “We have never had an incident since the refiners are very experienced,” the association president said.
A worker who sits in front of a small furnace to melt jewellery earns Rs100-150 per task.
Showing a gold button worth Rs600,000, refiner Zahir Butt said he earned only Rs50 for smelting it. “It is bare minimum, enough to keep the refinery afloat,” he shared, while poking the glowing embers in the small furnace.
This process leaves behind small dense valuable particles, large low-density particles, and fine particles to dust. So the embers, broken clay crucibles which are used to melt metal, and the sweep from the shop are all sold to the niara collectors too.
Reclaiming precious metal waste has been an old practice in the bazaar. There are around 400 shops here, with an estimated 40-50 refineries. Smaller refineries smelt jewellery, while those with larger furnaces burn niara.
But the process just does not end here. According to Zargaran Welfare Association president, the sweep from the larger furnaces is sold to contractors from Multan and Sargodha. “The waste is loaded onto a truck and shipped to Punjab, as that is where water resources and land are aplenty,” he pointed out.
Gold touched a high of Rs123,800 per tola (11.66 grams) in Pakistan on July 27. Triggered by the spat between the United States and China, people had rushed to buy the precious yellow metal globally.
But the jewellers in Sarafa Bazaar insisted that peoples’ buying power has eroded. They claimed that many workers were idle and furnaces cold.
Karachi has several gold markets. After Sarafa Bazaar, the second precious metal market was established in Saddar, and then in Liaquatabad. Now several other areas, including New Karachi, Clifton, Orangi Town, Hyderi market, and Paposh, have their own gold markets.
Goldsmiths and jewellers in all these markets expect to lose metal during the production and design phases and so each of these markets have their own informal gold recycling units. The industry however still seems low-tech and needs better planning interventions and infrastructure, including safer incinerators, better ventilated workshops, and cleaner working environments.
The writer is a staff member