Obvious exploitation and thankless heroism

November 6, 2022

People from all over the world come to Baltistan for hiking and trekking.However, the living conditions of the porters who make it possible are deplorable

Sunset from Kho Burse Camp.
Sunset from Kho Burse Camp.


he Gilgit-Baltistan region is home to some of the world’s most enormous mountains.

Hussain, the youngest of eight siblings, works here as a porter during the summers. The rest of his siblings, all married, have left the region in search of better prospects, leaving him and his father behind.

Hussain, who has completed his matriculation, has also worked as a cook at various local restaurants. Baltistan’s economy has long revolved around tourism - mountaineering and trekking in particular. Agriculture is a secondary economic rector.

In the colder months, Hussain leaves Baltistan to look for unskilled or semi-skilled work in Lahore, Islamabad or Karachi. In this he is guided by fellow Balti workers. This August, he went to Karachi, his first visit to the city, hoping to find well-paid work that would also add to his skill set. The expedition did not go well. He ran out of money and was unable even to purchase a bus ticket home. Learning that a friend was driving to Lahore, he took another leap of faith and ragged along hoping to find something there. The job he landed was in a kitchen at a hotel but different from the type of work he was looking for.

People from all over the world visit Baltistan for hiking or trekking. Local porters carry the necessary supplies for the adventurers and are paid a pittance. Slightly better paid are the head porter, the cook, and the guide, valued on account of his experience.

The trekking and the mountaineering would not be possible without the porters. They carry 20-25 kg of equipment and supplies on their backs and walk or climb anywhere between eight and twenty-five kilometres a day. Not only do the porters carry most of the burden, they must also move significantly faster than the adventurers they accompany. For a day of hiking, the porters must wake up early, pack the supplies and leave for the next destination before the rest so that they can reach it in time to set up tents before the others arrive. The work is backbreaking. The fact is evident from the way elderly Balti men look - permanently hunched over from decades of carrying heavy loads.

The conditions are harsh at best and deadly at worst. To reach high mountains like K-2, Gasherbrum II or IV or Broad Peak, one must trek across the Baltoro glacier for three days. This requires sleeping on the glacier for at least two nights, sometimes longer. While the tourists bring or are provided weatherised tents, insulated sleeping pads and high-quality sleeping bags, porters struggle to find such essentials. They typically huddle together under a tarp that they make themselves, lying on a single layer of inadequate thin foam. Not all of them have sleeping bags.

One night at Concordia, our cook and a helper heard some porters shouting for help amidst a snowstorm. Two porters, we learnt had gotten lost and were stuck in a ravine between the glaciers. The cook came to my tent just as I was getting ready to sleep and asked me for a headlamp. He had to go with the helper to find and rescue the stranded porters but didn’t have a headlamp. He also told me I could go to the kitchen tent for a while to stay warm. I went over and sat with some porters and the kitchen crew, who had a gas stove on to keep warm. In the group, I noticed an unfamiliar face. I learnt that he, Ali, was with a group of porters tasked with bringing the supplies across the treacherous Gondogoro La. After their ration and shelter guarantees were not met, our group and others had accommodated them for the night. Our team planned to cross the Gondogoro La, so I asked him about his experience.

Ali said he had been in a town on the other side of the La when a group of trekkers crossing the La engaged him. He said a rock slide had resulted in one of the trekkers breaking his legs. The helmet of another had got smashed. He said the rescue team had decided to abandon them when they saw more rock sliding. The porters accompanying the trekkers then took it upon themselves to rescue them, risking their own lives to ensure that their guests safely made it out.

Our cook and helper finally returned with the two once-stranded porters. I learnt that they had been tasked with carrying supplies up to Broad Peak base camp. At the camp, they were told that there was no room for them and nothing to eat. They had to immediately trek six hours back. This was the first time these two porters had ventured into the mountains. Their lack of experience was partly the reason they had accepted the hazardous and were unable to navigate when things went wrong. Our cook, Haider, a highly experienced mountaineer, said the two would have died had it not been for the solidarity extended by our crew.

Over tea and cigarettes, Ali and the other porters recounted several stories of porters’ exploitation. When a worker is desperate, they said, the company owners will ask him to carry a load exceeding the legal limit of 25 kg. He will also get less ration than other porters and tarps that leak or break easily. Sometimes a part of the payment is withheld. Sometimes, they said, the guides keep the tips meant for the porters. Hussain said that even ensuring that the companies make full payments to the porters and provide ample rations and proper equipment would be a welcome improvement in their circumstances. Currently the porters’ rations are limited to tea, salt, flour, baking soda and gas. Mos of them survive on salted tea and flatbreads, which are not particularly nourishing. Poor nutrition results in many of them developing kidney problems.

Every porter I spoke to on this trek was from Baltistan. They were all Balti people between the ages of 17 and 65. Most of them had been to school and passed the matric examination. When they were asked why they didn’t complete their education, most of them said they needed to support their households. They also said there were no employment opportunities for educated people in Baltistan.

So, there is a sense of responsibility towards their households and a lack of economic incentive to pursue education beyond Grade 10. They all enter into some mazdoori (labour) at this stage in life, whether looking for work outside of Baltistan or working in the mountaineering industry.

A makeshift box and cable system used to cross a glacial river.
A makeshift box and cable system used to cross a glacial river.
The power dynamic between the company owners and the labourers must shift in favour of the labourers.

Why become a porter? The job carries some perks. One does not, for instance, have to pay a rent or for one’s food. So while the cash wage is nearly the same as other labour, one ends up with slightly more in the pocket in the end than in other forms of physical labour. We asked our head porter-turned-guide Iftikhar what he was getting. It was Rs 18,000 for the 15-day trek we were on and the tips. It came to a paltry $80 for 15 days. Still many Balti people prefer this line of work.

Hussain has worked as a porter for two years. This year he got lucky and got to serve as a head porter, the one responsible for securing rations for everybody and ensuring an even distribution of load amongst the crew. Head porters are paid slightly more than other porters and don’t have to carry other than their own supplies. Hussain got the job because he is a natural leaders. He wants to see the conditions improve for all his fellow workers.

The meagre wages do not allow the porters to improve their living conditions or build wealth for their family. They barely scrape by, struggling to survive. Those seeking better education and better-paid work have a hard job of finding it in Pakistan, what to talk of Baltistan. I go to speak to some college students working as porters and asked them why they were doing it. They said that this was the only work available to them. For most families therefore education is not a way out of the cycle of poverty.

Who runs this industry? From what we learnt, the owners and operators of the companies that provide porters are mainly from Baltistan. We learnt that out of the Rs 1.6 million our group paid, Rs 400,000 covered the actual costs.

So where did the rest of the money go? Haji Mehdi is the head of Vertical Explorers, the company we employed for our trek. His son, Syed, lives in Islamabad with his wife and children, has a home, owns a car, works as a government contractor and is looking to build a house and open another company offering similar services. One of the younger workers in the company, Irfan, was given a managerial role at the age of 20. He is a nephew of Syed, and, unlike most porters, has received a college education and never worked as a labourer.

A man of about 60 years carries a heavy load for the 20km hike from Paiu to Joula.
A man of about 60 years carries a heavy load for the 20km hike from Paiu to Joula.

The family provides trekking supplies in the region and has contacts in the government and abroad. It can be argued that they have operating expenses to cover and they started the business in the first place. Of course, it is only fair for them to cover their costs and make some profit. Still, I find the porters’ working conditions wretched. It does look like that most of the money goes towards building wealth for the owners’ family at the cost of Balti labourers. A not-so-insignificant portion is spent building wealth in Islamabad instead of developing the local economy.

I asked Hussain why he could not start a company that treated people fairly, and he said he had no money to undertake such an enterprise. He said there was a law requiring a company account with a minimum of Rs 400,000. This has created an institutional barrier for porters to take their lives into their own hands by managing their own companies.

What is to be done? First, the power dynamic between the company owners and the labourers must shift in favour of the labourers. Currently, the porters, cooks and guides are hired as independent contractors. Typically each crew made up of porters, cooks and chefs will come from the same village. Since each crew consists of family and friends from the same village, they act like a de facto union that can refuse to work under unfair conditions. However, because there is no centralised union across the villages for the labourers to negotiate salaries, each crew is at the mercy of the employers’ ability to underpay a more desperate set of workers. If the labourers were to form a broad trade union across the villages, they would have the leverage and means to press for better working conditions and better pays.

Also, if the workers were to form a tourism cooperative or a series of cooperatives owned and operated by workers’ collectives, most the wages paid for their services would remain in Baltistan.

The writer completed a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering from Georgia Tech and now works as a teacher. He is currently teaching English in  Vietnam, and studying Vietnamese

Obvious exploitation and thankless heroism