The recent demonstration held by the Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation (PCMLF) in Quetta in the aftermath of two almost simultaneous coal mine explosions, which resulted in 23 fatalities, serves as a rallying call for justice for Pakistan’s coal miners.
This disaster caught international attention in what is widely viewed as a deeply exploitative industry. The coal industry has come under intense scrutiny, not only for its devastating effect on the environment, but also for the human degradation suffered by miners.
Amid the squalid working conditions in Pakistan’s coal mines, it is estimated that between 100 and 200 workers die in mine related accidents every year. Pakistan’s lucrative mining industry remains lightly regulated with authorities having little access to coal mining sites, several of which remain unregistered.
While Pakistan’s coal reserves are widely perceived as a panacea to the country’s acute energy crisis, the miners who extract this energy resource are treated with a contemptuous indifference. According to the Pakistan Standard of Living Measurement survey, coal miners earn less than the minimum wage per month. The prevalence of occupational diseases, particularly respiratory illnesses, remains high in an industry where workers are routinely exposed to deadly toxins.
Pakistan has laws to ensure the safety and welfare of workers engaged in mining and quarrying. These include the Mines Act 1923, the Mines Maternity Benefits Act 1941, the Coal Mines (Fixation of Rates and Wages) Ordinance 1960 and the Excise Duty on Mineral (Labour) Welfare Act 1967. If anything, the utter uselessness of these laws reinforces a disappointing reality: that all too often laws exist not only to protect the powerful but to legitimise the abject condition of the powerless.
In many ways the plight of the Balochistan coal miners stands as a metaphor for the wider suffering faced by the 13 million people of the province. Resource-rich Balochistan remains the poorest province of the country, with its people deprived of the most basic amenities
In many ways the plight of the Balochistan coal miners stands as a metaphor for the wider suffering faced by the 13 million people of the province. Resource-rich Balochistan remains the poorest province of the country, with its people deprived of the most basic amenities.
With its abundance of natural resources and proximity to Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia, Balochistan’s strategic importance has assumed even greater focus with the development of its port at Gwadar. In spite of this, people remain mired in poverty in a province where despotic feudal power structures continue to hold sway. As a result of Balochistan’s routine neglect on both provincial and federal levels, separatist sentiment has struck a responsive chord within parts of the province.
Like so many other big industries in Pakistan, the coal industry’s abiding inability to ensure basic safety measures for its workers highlights how the country remains woefully lagging in human rights, social development and governance. On a broader level, the lack of reform in the face of such recurring tragedies casts a dark shadow over a deeply unequal society which remains inured to the suffering of the labour workforce that plays a critical role in turning the wheels of industry.
The depredations suffered by Balochistan’s miners may be forgotten tomorrow, but in the absence of accountability and reform, perhaps it’s only a matter of time until the voices of the invisible and marginalised galvanise into a more powerful expression of social revolt.
By Mashaal Gauhar