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Opinion

May 11, 2018

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The plight of the miner

Twenty-three mine workers lost their lives last week in two separate incidents in coal mines in Balochistan. But these 23 dead bodies failed to get the attention of political parties and the media, because working class issues are not very high on the agenda of both mainstream political parties and the media.

Only the mine workers affiliated with the Mines Labour Federation protested the deaths of their colleagues in Sooranj and Marwaarh coal mines, demanding that the provincial government arrange safety measures in order to prevent such incidents.

According to the Mines Labour Federation representatives, abysmal conditions persist in mining work. “The terms and conditions of work in coal mines in Pakistan are worse than the conditions that existed 500 years ago in the western economies before the industrial revolutions. Deaths in mines are a routine affair and dead bodies don’t make even a ripple. Workers are paid piece-rate and none is registered with social security.”

Such incidents are on the rise because the government, mine owners and contractors or sub-contractors are not interested in providing basic facilities and infrastructure in mining areas. Miners are not only working in poor and dangerous conditions but also living without the basic necessities of life.

Owners and contractors are mostly influential people who violate mining and labour laws without any fear. It is these people who are responsible for the provision of safe facilities at the work place, but there is no accountability process that can take mine owners and contractors to task. Contractors are not even registered with the government. On its part, the government needs to register all the mines in the country while also registering all workers with the social security department. It is the responsibility of the government to protect the workers from exploitation, bonded labour and protect their rights.

The majority of miners earned between Rs7000 and Rs12000 per month on average. This is well below the minimum wage of Rs15000 per month.

The recent deaths in Balochistan’s mines once again expose the poor safety, health and working conditions at mines. Miners are the most exploited section of Pakistan’s working class. At least 20,000 labourers are employed in 2,500 mines across Balochistan. The overwhelming majority belongs to the Shangla district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Shangla is amongst the most poor and deprived districts of the country and the majority of its people work in the mining sector in Balochistan, KP and Sindh. Because of immense poverty, unemployment, lack of employment opportunities, limited income resources, a high rate of population growth and illiteracy the people of Shangla are forced to work where ever job opportunities exist and are offered. Their economic conditions compel them to work even in the mining industry which is notorious for occupational health hazards.

Mining work is extremely physically challenging. Mine owners in Pakistan still use ancient non-mechanical methods in the mines. For example, all the operations – coal extraction, loading and transportation – are done manually in most of the mines. The work also includes digging, drilling and blasting coal mines in areas of Balochistan.

There are families in this district which have been involved in mining work for decades and their second and third generations are now working as miners. There have been deaths due to gas suffocation or blasts but – while we may find that horrifying – they have no other option to make a living.

These families are forced to send their sons to work in the mines in very dangerous conditions, despite knowing the dangers in this work. Their sons die in the mines because of methane gas, explosions and other accidents and are returned in ambulances to be buried in their native areas. The fortunate ones are those who work in the mines for years and then get ill and return to their families to die from TB, asthma or any other disease.

The figures on occupational accidents in the mining sector in Pakistan are shocking. According to an estimate, more than 100 people lose their lives annually and a similar number are disabled. Thousands of miners toil away under life-threatening conditions. Even inhuman child and bonded labour violations take place in the sector and many miners are actually daily wage workers brought to coal mines by contractors. It is apparent that the mining sector is one of the most unregulated sectors in the Pakistani economy.

Pakistan has four national level laws related to health, safety and welfare of workers engaged in mining and quarrying, specifically: the Mines Act 1923, Mines Maternity Benefits Act 1941, Coal Mines (Fixation of Rates and Wages) Ordinance 1960, and the Excise Duty on Mineral (Labour) Welfare Act 1967. Federal and provincial governments need to amend the already existing laws and fully implement them. Pakistan needs progressive labour laws which can protect workers’ rights which is why we also need to ratify the ILO’s Safety and Health in Mines Convention 1995, and follow the 2006 ILO Code on Safety and Health in underground Coal Mines.

The government should take the necessary measures to stop contractual labour in the mining sector. Miners should be treated with dignity, respect and as human beings. They are not slaves and all of them need a social security net.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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