THE frequency of mining accidents should not numb officials and the public to the terrible human toll the accidents inflict. Disaster struck coal mines in two areas relatively close to Quetta on Saturday as seemingly preventable accidents caused a death and injury count in the dozens. In one coal mine, a methane build-up was the cause of a devastating explosion that killed many. In the other coal mine, a mudslide trapped and killed and injured several miners. A professional investigation can determine if criminal liability is warranted for the mine owners or operators, but it should be apparent that without a radical overhaul of the mining sector, further accidents are regrettably inevitable. While mining is and will remain a dangerous sector for workers — accidents also occur occasionally in advanced economies — what is galling is that few lessons, if any, are learned in Pakistan. Methane build-ups and conditions conducive to cave-ins ought to be identified early and adequate steps taken to protect workers.
It is possible to identify specific problems in the mining sector, articularly in coal mining. The Mines Labour Federation, which has been protesting the latest deadly accidents in Balochistan, has demanded better protection for workers and can surely offer sensible and reasonable suggestions for strong safety measures. But with manufacturing and mining safety generally a problem across the country, particularly in the unregulated sections of the economy, the problem is fundamentally of capacity and will at the policy and administrative levels. When political leaders and government officials talk about workers, it is either in terms of enhancing the minimum wage or job creation. The quality of jobs and particularly safety protections for workers barely register in political and governance discourses. Compounding that problem is either a disinterest in or hostility towards labour unions, which if effectively organised and capably led can help improve the quality of industrial and mining jobs.
The upcoming general election is unlikely to see immediate positive change in worker safety. In Balochistan, for example, mining safety may be at the bottom of governance priorities given the myriad problems in the region. The record of other provinces may only be marginally better when it comes to worker safety. Ultimately, safety requires resources and effective enforcement. The formal sector has its own problems, but there are safety lessons that can surely be learned from the management of well-run, exported-oriented factories, for example. Finally, compensation for the injured and the families of the dead in industrial accidents should be examined. Mining attracts some of the hardest working but poorest workers in the labour force. When catastrophe strikes miners, entire families and multiple generations can be blighted. It is a moral responsibility of the state and should be a legal responsibility of employers to provide reasonable compensation in the case of injury or death.
Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2018