Shaukat Ali Chaudhry
Putting labour in the forefront of development is a prerequisite for any positive social change. But labour is the most neglected and deprived section in our country and does not enjoy equity and equal rights. The mine and quarry workers are one of this class. They are not only seeking their bread and butter from digging up the mountains but they are building up the nation too. The crushed rock which is made from these mountains is used as building material. These workers are generating millions of rupees of revenue for the Punjab Government. Bridge Number 111 Southern is the largest centre of the stone market some 22 km from the city of Sargodha on the Faisalabad Road. It is the one of the largest stone valleys of Asia. Surface mining came up here in decade of the 1970s.
The working conditions of mine and quarry workers are pathetically unsafe and poor which leads to the routine occurrence of accidents. They workers labour without any safety measures. Just a rope is the tool for them to climb up the mountains. They are well aware of the possibility of death or injury. Workers between the age of 10 to 40 rush to this valley of death as they do not have alternative job opportunities.
According to data since 1988, 372 workers have died while 186 have become handicapped for life. No area of six union councils and 36 villages is exempted from these handicapped workers. It is lamented that presently there is no mechanism to compensate the workers who died or were injured in the accidents at the mines and the quarries. Besides this, the workers are deprived of minimum wages, safety kits, welfare funds, insurance, health and education facilities. The workers complain that the mine and quarry owners do not even provide drinking water to workers at the sites. In the rainy season due to the suspension of approach roads to the mines from other areas the mine and quarry workers suffer severe income losses.
They are segregated and socially discriminated against. They have no civil liberties and are treated as third rate citizens. When they raise their voice against oppression and injustice they are put in jail. They are subjected to police brutality and suffer trials and tribulations. They are subjected to difficulties, frustrations and despair. In Martin Luther’s words they are ‘battered by the storms of persecution’. They do not enjoy any human respect and fraternity. Although these workers are not in millions but their miseries are incredibly boundless. They are deprived of the payment of minimum wages, old age benefits, life insurance, marriage and death grants, safety kits and pension facilities. The government should take immediate measures to register all mines and quarry workers while providing them a comprehensive package of social protection. A three men agreement was decided upon in 11 May 2009. According to this the lease owners were bound to load only 200 cubic feet of stone from their labourers. But action is still awaited.
The owners are to pay labour for 200 cubic feet of mined stone but in reality they obtain 400 cubic feet of stone. They do not consider these workers as their own labour. Despite the provisions of the Mines Act of 1923, the Mines Department has not yet registered these workers in A and B schedule. There is no record of these workers’ registration anywhere in the Mines Department. They have yet to decide what kind of labour these workers are doing. The members of the Mines Department are also exploiting these workers. These members are beneficiaries of the lease-owners who give handsome sums of money for this purpose. Due to the negligence of the Mines Department 20 blocks of mine are closed out of the total of 52 blocks. The Government of Punjab was earlier recovering 20 crorerupees per year as excise duty. At present the Government of Punjab has been suffering income losses of at least 40 crore rupees per year. Excise duty has not been auctioned since the last few months due to the worsened circumstances of the stone market. The dependents of demised workers of 1970 who were deprived of death grants under the Act 1923, have succeeded to get their dues from year 2002. 202 dependants were given their legal dues in cooperation with the Mines’ Commissioner. But this is not sufficient. Plenty of matters are there to be solved. It is important to take certain measures to ensure justice with all section of these workers.
1. They should all be registered in A and B schedule.
2. They should all be given a comprehensive package of social protection, safety measures, minimum wages, old age benefits, life insurance, marriage and death grants and pension facilities to all registered and unregistered workers.
3. It must be ensured that lease owners should got loaded 200 cubic feet stone from workers.
They should all be given equal opportunities to live their lives in respectable ambience. They should enjoy respect, peace, opportunities for education, job, justice and treatment in a better social atmosphere. The future is full of prospects and promise for them. Pakistan Mazdoor Mahaz (The Pakistan Workers’ Front) is standing by the mine and quarry workers through thick and thin. It is organising them on a number of issues and has been lobbying with the concerned Government authorities. We feel the need for unity and building strong linkages with these workers for their rights in different part of the country. We also provide them legal advocacy pro-labour programmes and the implementation of the related existing laws. We assure them our full support.Shaukat Ali Chaudhury, Lahore.
The author is General Secretary of Pakistan Mazdoor Mahaz
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