More workers have lost their lives in Pakistan’s deadly coal mines this month. 18 miners have been killed at work in May alone, according to the Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation. But Pakistan’s government is reluctant to ratify ILO C176, a 1995 convention on safety and health in mines. Until that happens, miners are condemned to work in death traps.
On 19 May, a miner fell through a roof and died at work in the Ghazi mine.
Just two days later, on 21 May, a worker was electrocuted in the Duki coal field, and a landslide killed another miner in the same field. And on 22 May, three miners were injured in a gas blast in a mine belonging to Shakot Charat Coal Company.
And importantly, the hazardous conditions are made worse by an inherent neglect of workers’ safety by both mining companies and state authorities.
“The poor working conditions pose a real threat to workers’ lives and we need assistance in training, organizing and awareness raising activities for our workers,” says Sultan Khan, president of the Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation.
PCMLF estimates that Pakistan’s coal mining sector employs more than 100,000 workers in 400 coal mines. Miners usually start working at the age of 13. By the time they reach 30, they are forced into unemployment due to chronic respiratory illnesses, tuberculosis, loss of eyesight, and injuries.
Poverty and a lack of job opportunities force people to work in the mines where workers often have to work for over 10 hours a day without adequate safety equipment, in violation of Pakistan’s own labour laws, Khan says, adding, “When accidents occur, the first respondents are usually other workers in the mine, as there is no access to well-equipped emergency response teams.”
The Pakistan’s government is reluctant to ratify ILO C176, a 1995 convention on safety and health in mines of the International Labour Organisation. Until that happens, miners are condemned to work in death traps.
A prayer on the lips
Mohammad Israr, 17, says that he prays with a heavy heart every time he enters the deadly coal mine in the mineral-rich, south-western province of Balochistan that claimed the life of his father.
“My father worked in coal mines for over two decades, but ever since his death over a year ago, I had to quit my studies and leave my home to come and work here as a miner,” Israr says.
With his basic knowledge of Arabic writing and a short background of religious studies, Israr has written various holy verses on the stained black entrance of the mine with white chalk as an omen for good luck and safety. “Our wholesale reliance is on Allah. Nothing else can protect us here,” says Israr, a native of the former Taliban stronghold of Swat Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, northern Pakistan, which is over 1,600 kilometres away.
Israr labours for at least 10 hours a day as a helper underground, and occasionally as a coal loader. The work earns him around US$ 10 per day, but it is exhausting and perilous. Adapting to the extreme temperatures of Balochistan, where it plummets below zero in the winter and routinely exceeds 40°C in the warmer months, as well as the life-threatening work of small-scale mining, has been physically and mentally very hard for the teenager.
But Israr has no choice. “I have to pay back the loans that we took out to pay for things when my father died, and I have to help look after my nine siblings and my mother. There is no other work available,” he confides.
Blinded by profits
According to the British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy 2020, Pakistan has some of the largest coal reserves in the world (3,064 million tonnes), and coal is used to power everything from brick kilns to cement factories to electricity power plants. But coal mining in Pakistan is incredibly dangerous.
Reliable data is hard to come by as most workers are informal and work attendance registers at the mines are poorly maintained, but at least 100 mine workers lose their lives every year; in 2020, it is estimated that 208 mine workers died in Pakistan. Thousands more are injured and an untold number develop serious illnesses and diseases as a result of their work.
The mines tend to be operated by small and medium-sized mining groups, or individuals, many of whom operate on a short-term basis with a sole focus on profit-maximisation. With so many informal enterprises numbers vary, but there are thought to be over 3,000 registered coal mines in Balochistan, engaging over 40,000 miners. Pakistan’s miners are mostly subcontracted, doing manual or semi-mechanised work in privately owned mines which receive little technological investment because the cost is shouldered by mine owners who do not want to impact their profit margins. The government offers little to no legal, financial, technological or social support to mine owners.
The hours are long, up to 14 hours a day, and while it is illegal for workers under the age of 18 to be engaged in hazardous work in Pakistan, child labour in the mining industry is common, and children as young as 14 years old can be found working underground. There are few health and safety measures for mine workers, little or no training, no paid holidays, no health insurance, and very low wages.