Risking one’s health for a pittance

Hundreds of child labourers in informal and/or illegal coal mines in Bamyan and Sar-e-Pol provinces, in central and northern Afghanistan respectively, have respiratory and eye infections and are exposed to other dangers, according to health officials in both provinces.

“We work 200-300 metres under the surface… It’s hot down there but cold outside, so I always feel ill,” Mohammad Alim, a 15-year-old coal miner in the Kahmerd District of Bamyan, told IRIN.

“I lost my younger brother when a shaft collapsed last year,” said Reza, a 13-year-old worker, adding that he had continued to work in the mine because there was no other way he could support his family.

“I have been working here for the past three years and I always get chest pains,” said Yadgar, 16, who works in a coal mine in Balkhab District, Sar-e-Pol Province.

Most child labourers said they were working in the mines to help their families but only got 150-300 Afghanis (US$3-6) a day.

Coal mining in Afghanistan is a largely unregulated affair. Production is about 200,000 metric tonnes a year, but only about 20 percent is from government mines, mainly operated by the North Coal Department or associated agencies in Herat Province, according to a report abstract published by the Geological Society of America in October 2006, and entitled Coal Mining in Afghanistan - A Third-World Paradigm of Problems and Opportunities.

Domestic demand for coal remains high, however, and this explains the large number of illegal and/or informal, small, artisanal mines which use primitive methods and where health and safety, or environmental concerns, are barely a consideration, the report says.


Regular inhalation of coal dust can cause serious respiratory and lung diseases, such as asthma-causing anthracosis. Harmful bacteria and dirt in coal dust can also damage the eyes, health experts say.

“Various harmful particles can damage the lungs and the entire respiratory system of a person who frequently inhales dust and coal powder,” Hamid (like many Afghans he does not use a surname), a doctor at Bamyan’s central hospital, told IRIN.

Work inside dusty and dark coal mines also frequently results in head injuries and eye infections because workers in informal mines rarely use protective goggles or helmets, and have defective - or no - decent protective equipment.

“We do not keep medical records of children working in the coal mines but the overall number of people seeking treatment for lung and eye infections is high,” said Hamid.

Child coal miners also face other risks - mine collapses, fires, lack of oxygen, coal gas, and back or ligament injuries caused by lifting heavy objects - workers and local officials said.


Abdul Khaliq Zaleeq, governor of Kahmerd District, told IRIN over 1,500 workers - most of them under 18 - worked in local coal mines. Dozens, if not hundreds, of children are also involved in coal mining in Sar-e-Pol Province, local officials said. However, owing to the informal and in many cases illegal nature of their work, IRIN was not able to establish how many of the children regularly worked underground.

“Coal mining operations in Bamyan, Sar-e-Pol and other provinces are illegal and conducted by unauthorised people,” Mohammad Ibrahim Adil, the minister of mines and industries, told IRIN, adding: “We want to bring coal mining under government control and ensure all safety measures for workers.” He did not say when this might happen.

Khozhmal Olomi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Mines and Industries, told IRIN in Kabul about 1,500 workers were involved in illegal mining in Kahmerd District, producing up to 500 metric tonnes of coal per day. However, some 1,088 people were employed in five coal mines in central and northern provinces which are supervised and maintained by the government. Workers in these mines have access to some preventive/protective equipment such as goggles and helmets, he said.