Labour from the Grave

Chaudry Shaukat

The most dangerous type of labour in this world is mine labour – it can also be called labour from the grave since working thousands of feet below the ground is the same as getting buried alive.

Mining is the oldest profession in world. If we analyze the history of advanced countries then we come to realize that mining is the main factor in their prosperity and advancement. Countries from America to Europe have their foundations laid on the bones of miners. Apart from this if we look through history at a glance then we find that powerful, advanced and adventurous nations invaded other countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America for their raw material and resources. They robbed and transferred the resources and raw materials like gold, silver, copper, zinc, coal, diamonds, and other treasures to their respective countries and built their foundation of industrial progress on it.

Later the discovery and usage of oil accelerated this process of exploitation even further. America and European countries also have an abundance of natural resources like coal and iron but they have preferred to use raw materials from the slave nations for their industrial progress and that was the reason that workers from those countries waged a bloody struggle for their rights which included better working hours, increased wages and they have succeeded in their struggle to some extent.

On the contrary, as raw material was available at very cheap rates in slave nations their labour movements have not strengthened further and they went through and faced stringent colonial laws thus they could not succeed while their counterpart movements succeeded in America and Europe.

During the era of British rule the sun never set, most of the world was under its occupation but around 1920 they surrendered against their own mine labourers and enforced legislation for their betterment. By 1880 the British government had started mining in the geographical boundaries of India, they had a workforce made up of thousands to extract the raw materials and minerals but they were not entitled to any of the benefits the British labourers were getting.

Surprisingly, however, law making institutions announced that British Mines Act will not be imposed on mine workers who are working in the colonies. Mine workers in India protested against this decision along with the political leadership and after seeing the escalation in agitation in 1923 the British Government imposed the same Mines Act in India.

After the independence of Pakistan this Mines Act also came along with many other laws which are still enforced. Undoubtedly it’s a good act when it’s implemented. In Pakistan the problem which every worker faces is that none of the laws are implemented.

On 20-21st December 2018, the Pakistan Workers Federation organized an all Pakistan Mine Workers convention with the collaboration of FES which is a German organization. The aim of that convention was to discuss the problems mine workers are facing and their solutions and implementation of existing laws as well as to make new ones. From all over Pakistan and from different organizations around 65 labour leaders participated in that convention. The information which we got during that convention was shocking.

Let us have a glance at the accidents which took place during 1898 to 2018 almost 1130 mine workers have lost their lives due to methane gas, collapse of mines, low air pressure, fire or bites from poisonous insects. The above statistics are only from Baluchistan. Similar shocking statistics exist in Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It should also be noted that these statistics are the ones on record otherwise figures are so high since most of the time contractors use daily wagers because of their cheap labour and for such daily wagers no record is kept so if some accident happens to them it’s not recorded anywhere nor do they get any compensation from any institution. Most of the time they get crippled and disabled for the rest of their lives and there is no such thing like a pension or any welfare system in place and when there is one it is not implemented.

Apart from the above statistics, in the district of Sargodha in Punjab, they crush hills to get rocks and during 2000 to 2014 almost 224 and from 2015 to 2018 111 labourers died by falling from hills or by coming under rocks. The count of those injured is separate from this and we do not have any record for those who were disabled because most of them belong to the district of Swat, Kashmir and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which are far away and once the workers have returned to their homes it is next to impossible to get in touch with them.

Other then these accidents, the miners get various diseases like kidney failure, TB, asthma, eye problems, itching and muscle pulls due to working 3000 to 7000 feet below ground level due to dust and low air pressure. Let’s have a glance at what the miners’ leaders have told us about them in the convention; according to the law one should not go inside mines until and unless he is enrolled and recorded, but the contractors do not take care of it. Secondly, it is necessary to have clinical facilities near mines however such facilities are not available at all. One cannot think of having an ambulance as there is no such thing available.

It is the responsibility of the Inspector of Mines to make sure and bind lease holders of these mines to provide all these facilities to mine workers. The problem is that this department is short of inspectors who fulfill their responsibilities and secondly they are hesitant to go for inspections in remote and dangerous areas.

In Baluchistan most of the accidents take place due to the presence of methane gas in the mines. To prevent such accidents it is necessary to install an indicator inside mines which can show the presence of methane gas, the cost of such indicators is just 25, 000 Pakistan rupees which is equivalent to $180 but no mine leaseholders are ready to install such indicators. The concerned department is criminally blind folded for such negligence. Secondly the wage rate is based upon piece rates which are dependent upon the raw material which you extract, so it is really hard to get the right amount from the contractors until and unless you have strong union hold over there.

Even in the 21st century the mining sector of Pakistan is still working under the conditions of the 18th century. The world has progressed exponentially in this field. In Pakistan most of the mine leaseholders belong to influential political families, feudal lords and Sardars and they are least bothered with the condition of mines and the safety of mine workers.

In Pakistan even today they extract raw materials from mines and transport them on the backs of donkeys. We do not have a single mine in which you can get inside by standing on your feet. Mine workers do not even have access to clean water for drinking which is mandatory according to law. They are forced to drink dirty water during work. The mining sector contributes 3 to 5 percentage of the GDP and approximately 100,000 workers are associated with it. By improving this sector we can raise its share in GDP but the question is who should do this and why.

In Pakistan mining is like labour from the grave, it is like an ocean of fire and workers are required to swim through it to cross it.

Chaudry Shaukat,
General Secretary Pakistan Mazdoor Mahaz,
Deputy General Secretary, Pakistan Workers Confederation.

Translated from the Urdu by Parma Abbas

Click here to return to the April 2019 index.