Coal was first extracted in the mineral-rich Balochistan province of Pakistan in the 1850s by the British. Since then it has grown into a massive modern industry but the miners are still working in primitive conditions.
With five major coalfields – Mach, Shahrag, Dukki, Chamalang and Quetta – Balochistan has approximately 2.2bn tonnes of coal reserves. As a result, the mining operation across the state is huge; at least 15,000 tonnes of coal are produced daily, selling for an of average 14,000 PKR (£70) per tonne.
It is big business for the country’s coffers, too. The provincial government takes a cut of 130 PKR (£0.65) per tonne and the federal government 500 PKR (£2.50).
An operation on this scale requires a massive workforce; at the Mach coal mines alone it is estimated that there are between 10,000 and 20,000 workers. Child labour is rife: at all the coal mines visited by the Guardian in January, child labourers were seen working above ground sorting coal, collecting iron and picking up pieces of coal spilled across the fields.
“Coal workers in Balochistan are orphans,” says Asif Qambrani, a research scholar whose work focuses on the mining industry in the region.
At the mine in Shahrag, sitting on the floor working to remove impurities from freshly mined coal, are Noor Mohammed Marri, 15, and nine-year-old Gul Zaman Marri, who earn between 300 and 400 PKR (£1.50-£2) a day.
“My father had died due to an accident so I am an orphan and I have no one except a few family elders and one of them is working here,” says Noor. “We come here to do some work under his supervision. We can’t survive if we don’t work.”
There have been multiple recent reports of child sexual abuse at the mines in Shahrag, and while Noor is adamant he has not been harassed, he says he fears for other young orphans who have no family working in the mines to look out for them.
The story of the coal miners of Balochistan is one of debt bondage and human rights abuses, an absence of basic health and safety measures, and brutal working and living conditions. Many of the conditions of modern slavery are evident across these mines, which have not modernised in decades. Adult miners earn around £5 a day.
Pakistan’s first Mines Act was passed in 1923 to enshrine workers’ rights. It stipulates that canteens, shelters, medical equipment and first aid rooms should be provided at every mine where more than 100 people are employed. Yet there was no obvious sign of these facilities when the Guardian visited the Mach and Shahrag mines.
The issues are compounded by the fact that that many of the workers have either migrated from Swat or neighbouring Afghanistan, and are not legally registered, meaning their very existence – and therefore their rights – can be easily dismissed. According to the Mines Act, all workers should be registered with firms and leaseholders. But there is little pressure from the authorities to enforce this.
“The problem in Balochistan is that most coal mine owners and leaseholders are either influential people in Karachi and Lahore who took ownership in the 1950s and 1960s and have never even visited the mines themselves to see the conditions, or they are politicians, feudal or tribal chiefs who are in provincial and central government,” says Qambrani. “These owners never enforce registration of mine workers because then they have to provide all basic facilities, which would decrease their profits.”
There is also little will or incentive for the state government to enforce the act’s provisions or subsequent iterations of the law intended to regulate the industry. Many key provincial assembly members are either owners of mines or have major stakes in Balochistan’s mining industry, including Jam Kamal Khan, who is both the state’s chief minister and minister for mining and minerals. Khan declined to comment when approached by the Guardian.
According to the Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation, between 100 and 200 labourers die on average in coal mine accidents every year, but many incidents go unreported. In January a Mach miner was trapped for over 48 hours and had to be dug out by fellow workers after the government failed to help with the rescue operation. In February, four miners died in a landslide at Duki. 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.
The unforgiving conditions take a heavy toll on the body. Many workers spoke of the constant threat of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung disease, an incurable but preventable illness caused by inhaling coal mine dust.
According to the law, the families of workers who died in the mines are entitled to 200,000 PKR (£1,000) compensation from the mine owners and 500,000 PKR (£2,500) from the government. But only workers from Pakistan are entitled to a government payout, leaving the Afghan miners, who make up around 50% of the workforce, unprotected by the state. Many families claim compensation
The fatalities keep coming. When the Guardian visited the Shahrag mine in January, an incident had occurred just 10 days earlier. 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 1,000ft into the pit.
Ghulam Raza, another worker at Mach who is originally from Ghazni in Afghanistan, describes the daily fear that has haunted him since he witnessed a portion of a mine wall collapse, killing a co-worker. The death was never investigated. “I got really scared,” says Raza. “When the incident happened, no one came from the government, not even an ambulance. The Frontier Corps just came to inquire about what happened and then told us to take the body to the bazar.”
“Due to my debt, I cannot go back to my wife and son,” says Raza. “But if I had a choice, I wouldn’t stay an hour longer here.” (Source: The Guardian)