Bitterly dangerous working conditions, corrupt and callous authorities, and indentured servitude are the harrowing realities of the orphaned children and desperate men who labour without hope in Pakistan’s coal mines.
Ground central for the nation’s coal industry, reports The Guardian, are the mines of the southwestern state of Balochistan, where “the spectre of death hovers” over the “tens of thousands of men and children [who] descend below the surface each day to dig up thousands of tonnes of coal.”
Among the five major commercial coal mines in the state, there is “barely a single worker” who does not know someone who has died. “The threats of underground explosions, methane gas poisoning, suffocation, or mine walls collapsing are omnipresent,” the UK-based paper adds.
After a mine collapses, “it takes us 18, sometimes 24 hours to take them out because there is no machinery to remove the collapse; we are on our own,” said Luqman Shakir, 24, who began mining in Balochistan at age 15. He said he knows of 20 people who’ve died underground.
The dirt-cheap price of labour and life in Balochistan means mine owners are making money. With about 2.2 billion tonnes of reserves awaiting extraction, “the mining operation across the state is huge,” The Guardian says. “At least 15,000 tonnes of coal are produced daily, selling for an average of 14,000 PKR [US$90] per tonne.”
And it’s not just Pakistan’s resource extractors who are cashing in. The Guardian notes that “the provincial government takes a cut of 130 PKR [US$0.84] per tonne and the federal government 500 PKR [US$3.24].”
Critical to the success of such coffer-filling are child labourers, many of whom are orphans who find themselves easy targets for sexual abuse in the absence of adult protectors.
And whether child or adult, the coal miners of Balochistan are little more than slaves, writes The Guardian, noting that “adult miners earn around £5 (US$6.50) a day.”
While Pakistan’s Mines Act of 1923 stipulates that workers must be registered and that “canteens, shelters, medical equipment, and first aid rooms should be provided at every mine where more than 100 people are employed,” enforcement is worse than lax. There were “no obvious sign of these facilities” when Guardian reporters visited several of the region’s mines earlier this year; what the reporters saw instead were miners crammed 10 to a room, with no electricity, running water, or potable water and no toilets worthy of the name.
Corruption and conflicts of interest are also rife, with many officials “either owners of mines or [with] major stakes in Balochistan’s mining industry.” Among those officials, The Guardian reports, is the state’s chief minister and minister for mining and minerals, Jam Kamal Khan.
The death count resulting from this lack of state protection is staggering. “According to figures taken from records and news reports, from 2010 to May 2019 at least 414 miners were killed, though the real total is thought to be much higher,” writes The Guardian. And those figures do not take into account the ever-present threat of chronic illnesses such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, known as “black lung disease,” or the effects of major, untreated injuries in a system with few coalfield ambulances, health units, or doctors.
For those who lose loved ones, compensation is rare. While “the families of workers who died in the mines are entitled to 200,000 PKR [US$1,300] compensation from the mine owners and 500,000 PKR [US$3,240] from the government,” the provision only applies to Pakistani citizens, “leaving the Afghan miners, who make up around 50% of the work force, unprotected by the state,” says The Guardian. Those who do have a legal claim rarely see any money.
Widespread within the coal fields of Pakistan, however, is the phenomenon of debt bondage, which finds desperate men borrowing heavily (often from their future employers) simply to secure a job. Cruelly enslaved within this Catch-22, and “hundreds of miles away from his home and seven children in Afghanistan,” is Mohammed Ibrahim, “a frail 40-year-old with one hand” who labours as a haulage driver “to pay off the 50,000 PKR [US$324] he borrowed from the manager of the coal mine” to get his hands on the steering wheel.
Meanwhile, “the fatalities keep coming,” writes The Guardian. Just 10 days before the paper’s visit to the mines of Balochistan, “two workers, Faiz Mohammed and Samiullah, who had travelled from Afghanistan in desperate search of work and ended up in the mines, died after a mining trolley broke, throwing their bodies 1,000 feet into the pit.”