A series of deadly accidents has claimed the lives of 11 coal miners in Pakistan since late March. The tragic deaths of the miners once again demonstrates the dismal state of worker safety in the country. The accidents also highlight the deeply exploitative character of the mining industry, which after years of privatization is now dominated by private corporations.
The most recent accident occurred on the night of April 4, when 6 workers were suffocated by poisonous gas at a coal mine in the Sikandarabad area of Kalat in Balochistan, Pakistan’s poorest province. According to reports, the miners were digging deep inside the mine where a lethal amount of methane gas had accumulated, causing them to lose consciousness. Workers outside the mine tried desperately to rescue their friends and colleagues, but to no avail. They had all perished by the time rescue teams arrived. The mine was operating illegally, without the requisite government license, according to the Mines and Minerals Development Department of Balochistan’s provincial government.
A few days earlier, on April 1, 4 coal miners were killed at Ali Mines in the Jhelum district of Punjab. They were among 6 workers trapped under debris when an explosion caused a roof to collapse. Those killed included, Rehmatullah, Sabir Rehman and pair of brothers, Naseebzadah and Naseebullah, all of whom hailed from the Shangla district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
According to the Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation, another coal miner, Faiz Ullah, was killed in an accident at the Sharigh Coal Mine in Balochistan on March 27.
Poverty-stricken Pakistan has a long history of industrial accidents, which have claimed the lives of countless workers across various industries. According to sources familiar with Pakistan’s coal industry, at least 275 coal miners have been killed in accidents since January 2010. While mining is a dangerous job anywhere, it is especially perilous in Pakistan, where working conditions are deplorable and miners are made to follow outdated procedures. In addition to the threat of lethal accidents, miners are also exposed to toxic chemicals and dust that take a toll on their health. They are forced to endure these conditions while earning a pittance.
The country’s coal mining industry is unregulated. It is also plagued by the illegal ownership and operation of mines, lack of implementation of existing safety and health laws and a severely overburdened mining inspectorate. Mine owners routinely flout the existing regulations, fully cognizant of the fact they won’t suffer any consequences.
Pakistan’s coal miners are also insufficiently organized, with many lacking union representation. The existing unions, meanwhile, tend to limit their activities to appeals directed at the country’s crooked politicians and various domestic and international NGOs.
Last month, IndustriALL Global Union, an international federation of unions, launched a campaign to improve worker safety in Pakistan’s mines. The campaign was launched in partnership with its 10 Pakistani affiliates. IndustriALL has called on the government of Pakistan to immediately ratify the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 176 on safety and health in mines. First adopted in 1995, ILO Convention 176 establishes a framework for countries to create safer mining conditions and provides miners with increased rights. Most significantly, it recognizes the right of workers to participate in workplace safety through independent representation and acknowledges the right of workers to refuse to perform dangerous tasks. While the ratification and implementation of ILO Convention 176 would significantly improve worker safety in mines, only 32 countries have ratified it over the past 23 years.
If history is any guide, the call by IndustriALL to ratify ILO Convention 176 will fall on deaf ears. Successive governments in Pakistan have proven that the country’s elite is utterly impervious to the plight of the working class. Indeed, the response of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the opposition parties to the recent accidents has been one and the same—silence.
The exploitative mine and factory owners will continue to take advantage of this state of affairs until workers unite across industries to fight for safe and humane working conditions.
Ali Mohsin is an independent writer. He can be reached at email@example.com