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September 21, 2018

Coal mines or death traps?

Opinion

September 21, 2018

On September 12, a gas explosion in a coal mine in Darra Adam Khel, a town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, resulted in the death of nine miners. According to some estimates, more than 12 miners were working in the mine when the incident occurred.

They had entered the mine at the start of the day to earn a living. But a few hours later, they met a grim fate as many of them inhaled poisonous gases, sustained burn injuries or were trapped many feet under the ground.

They could have been rescued if safety regulations and labour laws had been followed. Unfortunately, no arrangements were made to check the conditions of the mine and ensure the safety of the miners.

The incident is the second fatal coal-mining accident in Pakistan over the past month. On August 13, over 13 miners died and many others were injured after a blast at a mine near Quetta. In the first nine months of 2018, more than 80 miners have lost their lives. According to the Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation, 100 to 200 labourers lose their lives in coal mine accidents every year.

Coal mines have become death chambers for miners. This is especially true in Balochistan, where miners work under deplorable conditions and little is done to ensure safety precautions. The poor conditions of mines; erratic and infrequent mine inspections; absence of basic medical and emergency facilities; and the callous attitude of employers and government officials are some of the reasons for such a large number of deaths each year. Lack of training, use of primitive methods and machinery, and the exploitative nature of casual and contract labour have also contributed to the deaths of miners.

In order to obtain maximum coal production, mine owners and contractors tend to force miners to work under dangerous conditions without proper training, machinery and tools. The contract system is quite repressive and exploitative, and compels miners to put their lives at risk to earn a living. The state has failed to protect the rights of workers, even though it has a constitutional responsibility to protect its citizens from all forms of exploitation and discrimination.

Therefore, it isn’t surprising that Pakistan is ranked alongside India and China as the most dangerous countries for mine workers. According to an ILO study conducted in 1999 on small-scale underground mines in the world, “the three countries with the highest number of small-scale underground coal mines (China, India and Pakistan) have significantly higher numbers of fatal accidents, even when the size of the workforce is taken into account, than is the case in other sorts of mines”.

The report adds: “In China, more than 6,000 fatalities are estimated to occur in small-scale mines each year. In Hunan, where 25 million tonnes of coal a year are produced in 5,220 small-scale mines employing 200,000 workers, there were 232 deaths in 1997; 70 percent of these deaths were due to gas or coal dust explosions”.

As per the ILO report, the fatality rate of 9.1 deaths per million tonnes of coal is 90 times higher than the industrialised countries average of 0.1 deaths per million tonne. The report states that the death toll is even higher in some regions. In 1998, 64 labourers in Balochistan lost their lives in mines producing 1.6 million tonnes of coal — a fatality rate of 40 workers per million tons. This is 360 times higher as compared with Western countries and 270 times higher as compared with China.

Not much has changed in the last 20 years as far as coal miners are concerned. Although committees were formed and government officials visited mines in Balochistan when two mines collapsed and more than two dozen miners died in May 2018, no lessons have been learnt and improvements have yet to be made. Deaths and injuries in coal mining accidents still occur on a regular basis.

Poor ventilation and lack of adherence to safety regulations at mines have contributed to the country’s poor safety record. Occupational safety is an illusion for miners and many other labourers working for meagre wages in the most dangerous of circumstances. Mine workers are dying because the government and employers have failed to implement workplace health and safety standards and labour laws.

Between May 2018 and September 2018, more than 80 workers have died in different industrial and workplace incidents. The responsibility for these deaths rests on the shoulders of the government, contractors and the labour department. Corrupt officials at the Inspectorate of Mines are also to blame. But there is no one to hold them accountable.

The violation of labour laws and safety standards at workplaces by owners and employers, and the criminal negligence of government officials in this regard have pushed several workers into death traps.

To minimise deaths and injuries in these incidents, it is necessary to strictly implement labour laws, especially health and safety standards, as factories, workshops and other workplaces are no longer safe for labourers.

All miners should be registered with the social security and labour departments to extend a full social security net to these workers. Workers are not slaves and must not be treated in this manner. A dignified life with all the basic facilities and needs is their fundamental right.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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