Miners risk all to earn a pittance

Two years ago, Abdul Ghaffar, 35, died when a section of the coalmine he was working in near Quetta, in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province, collapsed.

“His chest was completely crushed. He died before he could be taken to hospital,” his wife Sonam Bibi told IRIN. Today she struggles, working as a washerwoman, to raise their three children. “We were poor before, since my husband earned barely Rs. 4,000 [US$46] a month. We are poorer now,” said Sonam who is unable to send her children to school.

Last week, five miners died after an underground explosion at a coalmine in the Zarkhu area of Balochistan’s Mastung District, some 50km south of Quetta.

“This was a methane gas explosion,” Bakht Nawab Yousufzai of the Pakistan Mine Workers Federation told IRIN. He said the workers were about 500m below the surface when an explosion occurred and a fire broke out, preventing escape. Balochistan minister for mines and minerals Mir Abdul Rehman Mengal told the media in Quetta that he had ordered an inquiry and that the mine had been closed indefinitely.

Such accidents are not uncommon. In March this year at least 43 miners were killed following a series of explosions at a coalmine at Sorang near Quetta.

Like most miners in Balochistan, according to a 2010 study, by researcher Zia Ur Rehman who specializes in labour issues, the victims were migrant workers from Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa Province (KP). Rehman found workers from Shangla District were driven by "immense poverty" to work in mines outside their home areas. A previous 2004 study by the Islamabad-based Sustainable Policy Development Institute (SPDI) also noted migrant labour was common in Balochistan's mines.

“Horrendous working conditions”

“Miners in Pakistan are working in the most horrendous working conditions. They have virtually no safety equipment and safety measures are never taken care of by the bosses of the mines which are mainly in private hands,” Farooq Tariq, spokesperson for the Labour Party of Pakistan, told IRIN. He said this held true for miners across the country and demanded action against mine owners who failed to maintain safety standards.

According to Ministry of Labour from 2010, of a total employed workforce of 51.88 million in the country, 50,000 worked in the mining sector.

There is little data on safety issues in Balochistan, where the country’s largest coalfields are located, but according to the SDPI study, “on average more than 100 people lose their lives annually and a similar number are disabled."

A 2007 study by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research said: "Working conditions of mine workers, particularly [in] coal mines, are very poor. The severe lack of safety measures in these mines causes widespread deaths every year. Government agencies have not been able to stop accidents because of very poor physical and technical standards observed by small and medium mines. Added to which the equipment is considered obsolete by modern standards."

“There is a great dearth of reliable data," Mehboob Ahmed Khan, in charge of labour issues for the autonomous Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, based in Lahore, told IRIN.

“Archaic” safety procedures

Balochistan, where most deaths occur, has some 2,300 mines, according to a recent article in Foreign Policy, which said safety standards were extremely poor:

“There are laws, rules and regulations governing the granting of mining concessions and prescribing safety procedures. However, these are archaic and, in any event, have been observed loosely at best for so long that violations of the law are the norm, not the exception. Additionally, the working conditions in the mines are medieval. Miners, like the ones that were killed in Sorang travel as far down as 6,000m with nothing but hard-hats with lights attached, and picks to chip away at the coal,” the article said.

“We work here, because we have no choice. The air inside the mine is suffocating. We work up to 12 hours a day. Boys as young as 14 toil away too, and no one listens to us if we report a portion of a mine tunnel is crumbling, or that we cannot breathe well,” Rahim Dad Khan, a coalminer from the Shangla District of KP employed at a mine near Quetta, told IRIN.

A manager at the same mine, who asked not to be named, said: “I can see the workers face a risk. I sympathize with them. But the employers just want profits. If I make a complaint I will be fired,” he said.

“My husband earned a pittance, but he had no choice. The tough labour in the mine was miserable. Only death ended that misery for him, but added to that which I and the children suffer,” said Sonam Bibi, who wonders if one day her two sons, too, will have no choice but to go down a mine, as their father did for 10 years.