Mining is one of the province’s most profitable industries – and the most deadly.
QUETTA, BALOCHISTAN – Their faces covered with a black layer of coal dust, three laborers are on the crackling sled loaded with coal coming out from the Pakistan Minerals Development Corporation mine in Suranj, part of the tough mountainous terrain to the east of Quetta, the capital city of Balochistan province. Thousands of these laborers risk their lives every day in rathole-like mines across the province.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a multibillion dollar project, will be passing through Balochistan while connecting Pakistan’s Gwadar port to Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang region. The Pakistani government has talked up CPEC as “game changing” in terms of providing employment and services to the people of Pakistan. But so far, distant hopes of employment haven’t stopped thousands of youths from opting for the tough labor of coal mining. Balochistan province possesses huge reserves of coal in the Dukki, Quetta, Harnai, Ziarat, Luni Chamalang, and Mach regions. Many of the mines seeking to capitalize on those resources are underregulated or downright illegal.
In Balochistan’s mines there were “68 deaths reported last year,” says Muhammad Zameer, secretary general of the Pakistan Mines Workers Federation. “Several of the deaths caused by mining are not reported by the press because the greater number of people are working in these mines illegally – without a safe atmosphere, equipment, and government checks on functioning mines.” Since the start of 2019 some four workers have lost their lives in Luni Chamalang and four others in Dukki district, according to Zameer.
Coal mining has historically been fraught with dangers, which are similar to those associated with the aftermath of natural disasters – suffocation, gas poisoning, injury or death should the mine’s roof collapse, as well as gas explosions when untrained and unregistered workers enter dangerous zones for mining. According to a government official, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press, more than 100,000 people work in coal mines across the province. The majority are from Afghanistan, Balochistan, and the neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The owners and management of the mine usually recruit workers through a subcontractor to relieve themselves of the responsibility for the safety and welfare of the laborers. Neither the mine’s contractors nor the owners take much care with safety measures, including registering the data of their workers. According to the law, every coal mine laborer’s family should be paid if he dies while working.
In case of injury or death while working in the mines “the whole or any part of the fine recovered is to be paid as compensation to the person injured, or in the case of his death to his legal representative,” according to the Mines Act, 1923.
The secretary of the Balochistan provincial Labor Department, Muhammad Bilal Jamali, agrees that the “mines are not safe for the laborers.” He adds, “Most of the workers are not registered with us. [In case of death] we pay 200,000 Pakistan rupees [around $1,500] as compensation to the victim’s family and we forwarded a suggestion to increase the compensation amount to 500,000 rupees.”
A coal mine laborer, Atta Muhammad from the Loralai district, blames the mines’ managers for the deaths of laborers. “Mine managers do not check the presence of gases, the working conditions, and alarming signals within these mines,” Atta says. If conditions were monitored in a timely manner, he adds, it would “overcome incidents and loss of lives.”
The contractors also are remiss as they don’t pressure mine managers to clear the mine’s working condition before anyone goes down to work, says Atta.
The government mines department has some enforcement mechanisms, but the geographical area involved is huge. Even government officials cannot put forward the exact number of mines across the province or laborers working in these mines.
“We receive reports of incidents and then our inspectors go there for inspection,” says Shafqat Fayaz, the chief inspector for the Mineral Department of Balochistan, describing the process of opening an inquiry into a mine.
Zahir Ullah, 25, from Shangla in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has come to town to seek treatment for his ailing health. He has a fever and chest pain. “Dozens of us die every year,” says Zahir. “There are no safety measures… we are forced to earn a living this way, and we die earlier than average people because we inhale more coal particles than exhaled by a factory smokestack.”
Like Zahir, a majority of coal miners suffer from chest diseases. The inhalation of coal dust causes several diseases, including pneumoconiosis. Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), also known as black lung disease, it is caused by long-term exposure to coal dust, according to medical experts.
“There is no specific treatment for pneumoconiosis and it also causes heart diseases. Avoiding exposure to coal dust may stabilize the disease,” says Dr. Anwar Jan, one of the chest experts in Bolan Medical Complex who treats mine workers.
The cramped entrance to a coal mine in Balochistan.
In many of the cases these laborers come from Afghanistan and do not have official documents. Contractors prefer such workers because their deaths are never mentioned in the media and their relatives have little legal recourse. Most are from the Taliban- and Islamic State-plagued southern and southeastern regions of Afghanistan that border Pakistan; many are illiterate.
Unsurprisingly, then, many of the men tasked with operating gas indicators are not able to use the devices properly. That’s a contributing factor in these tragedies, as a majority of the operators are not trained for the job, says Zameer, the general secretary of the PMWF. He urged that there is a dire need to review and amend compensation policies for poor laborers and undertake a complete registration of the workers, as well as the mines. This will prevent businesses – and casualties – from going unnoticed and push the government to provide necessary oversight of the coal mining industry – including paying accident victims on time.
Another laborer, 47-year-old Shah Bahadar, complained about the lack of healthcare facilities, even though coal mining is one of the biggest industries in the province, worth billions of dollars. “We laborers are even deprived of first-aid in case of any injury and lack ambulance service in the Degari coal mine,” he says. The owners and managers of mine companies only care about filling their pockets, not about their laborers, according to Shah.
“Neither political parties nor unions take up the issues of laborers seriously,” says Zahir, another mine worker. “We’ve raised our voice many times but no one listens. We do not have clean water, housing facilities, or healthy food but no one visits to check our poor living conditions.”
The ministers of the Mines and Labor Departments did not return phone calls or respond to request for comments about the unsafe environment in coal mines. However, parliamentarians say that they have discussed the issues faced by the coal mine laborers.
“We have discussed the safety of coal miners many times on the floor of the provincial assembly. The government should implement labor safety laws in this regard,” says Akhtar Hussain Langove, one of the opposition members of the provincial assembly of Balochistan. “Our party members visit these coal mines in case of any incident.” Langove urged that “laborers should not compromise on their safety as well, and they should stand up for their rights.”
Zameer suggests some basic changes to start. “As per international standards, miners should be properly dressed in fitted shirts and trousers, leaving no space for methane to come into contact with their bodies. Safety lamps and helmets should be provided to them. And the government should have a mechanism to properly check on the mines, laborers, and owners [to prevent them from using] loopholes.”