Coal miners: the ground realities

PAKISTAN ranks as the sixth richest country in respect of coal reserves but those who dig out the black gold from the depths of the earth are the most exploited section of the workforce. Descending into dark, airless tunnels, miners extract coal from simple tools, inhaling coal dust, fearing methane gas explosions, fires, cave-ins, poisonous gas leakages and haulage accidents.

Out of the mines, the workers endure harsh conditions in makeshift mud shacks nearby, or in villages devoid of all basic facilities. Mine workers in Pakistan get a pittance for work considered one of the highest-risk activities in the world in terms of safety and health.

Mine management in Pakistan lacks hazard identification, risk assessment and preventive and protective measures. The number of fatal accidents is high. Occupational diseases—black lung, skin diseases, hearing loss, hypertension, tuberculosis— are rampant. Accidents are not recorded in the registry as required by law, and often go unchecked. A few weeks ago, on June 30, two workers were killed and two injured in a cave-in in a small coal mine at Jhimpir. The mining zone was reported to be without a medical facility.

Pakistan has not ratified the International Labour Organisation’s Safety and Health in Mines Convention 1995 (No. 176) and neither does it follow the 2006 ILO Code on Safety and Health in Underground Coal Mines that sets out general principles and specific guidance in all aspects of mining operations, including record keeping and documentation. It is crucial that the government ratifies the ILO convention and commits to implementing the regulatory and legislative framework according to international standards.

In Pakistan, the mining sector contributes 3pc to GDP according to the 2013-2014 Economic Survey and employs 0.34pc of the work force. Of these mine workers, 68pc — 1.4 million — earn a meagre monthly income of Rs5,000 to Rs10,000, as per the Pakistan Labour Force Survey 2012-2013. In developed countries, mining is a highly paid job. In the US, mine workers’ average income is higher than the national average income.

In developed countries, modern tools and the latest remote-controlled equipment is used in mining, operated by a highly skilled workforce. Mine operations are calibrated and monitored to the last detail to ensure the safety and health of the workers.

Due to lack of structural development, the mining sector in Pakistan is highly fragmented. Small areas are leased out to private investors by provincial governments. Private owners invest minimally in mine infrastructure development.

The regulatory and legislative system is subverted though the applicable law, framed by the British 91 years ago, the Mines Act 1923, spells out the provisions for health and safety and the responsibilities and duties of inspectors, owners, agents, managers and state officials. The main reason for lack of implementation is the collusion of state officials with the owners affiliated with the political elite.

The Mines Act 1923 needs to be reviewed for its Section 9 (‘Secrecy of information obtained’), Chapter Two, which requires all records of the mine to be kept confidential by the chief inspector and not to be disclosed to any other person besides a couple of state officials. Apparently, this clause was to serve the interests of the colonisers.

In Pakistan, industrial development policy documents hardly contain any reference to labour, a key factor of production besides land and capital. The National Mineral Policy 2013 claims to enhance “…the contribution of the mineral sector for … the benefit of the people of Pakistan”. Yet, it does not mention labour in any of its 13 specific objectives of the policy. Curiously, indicating a Freudian slip, the objective (No. XI) states: ‘Ensuring safe mining operations and safety and security of investors’.

The sector’s exploitative labour relations and the prevalence of forced labour have been well documented by Ahmed Saleem in his 2002 research. The abysmal conditions persist. “The terms and conditions of work in coal mines in Pakistan are worse than the conditions that existed 500 years ago in pre-industrial economies. 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,” says Sultan Khan, general secretary, Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation, Quetta.

The sub-committee of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Labour and Manpower, Balochistan, recommended in July 2010 mine workers’ registration with Nadra to access social security benefits. Recommendations and good intentions of a handful of parliamentarians and experts cannot bring about a change unless their number turns into a critical mass of powerful stakeholders committed to social justice.

In Pakistan, trade unions in the mining sector are weak and ineffective as most cater to the interests of the owners and contractors. It is time trade union federations, particularly in Sindh, mobilise mine workers, for the Thar coal field, the sixth largest coal reserve in the world, is poised to become operative in the years ahead.

Historically, coal miners, being the most militant, were among the first groups of workers to organise during the industrialisation era and in many countries (ie Britain, Poland, Chile, Japan and Canada) during the 19th and 20th centuries, the miners allied with radical socialist movements. Trade unions played a major role in ensuring the safety of mine workers. In 1920, the Chicago Coal Miners’ Union wrote in one of their handbooks: “When the workers themselves take charge of the coal mines through their unions, they will, first of all, make coal mining as safe an occupation as hoeing in the garden. It can be done, and there is no reason why it should not be done.”

Published in Dawn on July 28, 2014:

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