Sunday December 05, 2021

Plight of the miner

September 11, 2020

The death of 22 miners as a result of a marble mine collapse in the Mohmand district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has once again highlighted the plight of Pakistani miners. The incident took place in Tehsil Safi of the Mohmand district in the former tribal areas.

The number of causalities could have been much bigger if the mine had collapsed during peak working hours. It collapsed in the late afternoon when most of the miners had finished their work. Only 40 to 50 miners were present at the time of the accident.

The 22 miners lost their lives because health and safety standards were ignored and they were working in hazardous conditions. 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.

This is not the first incident of mine collapse in recent years. In February, nine labourers were killed and seven others injured in a marble mine slide in KP’s Buner district. In 2015, some 12 labourers were killed after a marble mine collapsed in Mohmand. On September 12, 2018 a gas explosion in a coal mine in Darra Adam Khel in the Khyber district resulted in the death of nine miners.

But unfortunately, nothing has been done on the ground to stop or even reduce these incidents. The sad fact is that despite all the deaths and injuries every year, occupational health and safety standards have not been improved by the KP government. The government makes promises after every major mining incident but the situation remains the same. Mine-owners, contractors and government officials have been ignoring the violations and occupational health and safety rules and standards.

Despite the fact that the owners of marble mines earn billions of rupees as profits, hardly anything is spent on improving the safety and working conditions of miners. The KP government is also not doing enough on this, despite collecting millions of rupees in taxes every year.

The mines have become death chambers for the miners, who 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 production, mine owners and contractors tend to force miners to work under dangerous conditions without proper training, machinery and tools. The contract system is 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.

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.

Pakistan has the most unregulated industry in the world, as mines are not under active government supervision. The laws are obsolete and do not conform to international practices. The Mines Act of 1923 is still in force, but the safety measures it calls for are not followed.

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 are 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.

The writer is a freelance journalist.