THIS is with reference to the report ‘Eight coalminers suffer burn injuries’ (April 21). This tragedy took place inside a coalmine in Balochistan’s Duki district. Almost every month there are serious, mostly fatal, accidents in various coalmines in Balochistan, killing or disabling hundreds of coalminers every year.

Sadly, the provincial government remains insensitive to the issue. On March 15, seven coalminers were burnt to death in a huge fire triggered by methane gas blast inside a coalmine in Harnai district, and two rescuers also lost their lives. Earlier, on March 12, six workers had died in the Marwar coalfields in Mach area following an explosion caused by the toxic methane gas.

Reportedly, there were as many as 72 accidents in coalmines in Balochistan during 2020, claiming lives of at least 102 coalmine workers and causing serious injuries to many others.

There are more than 2,800 small-scale coalmines owned by the state-run Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation (PMDC) and leased out to individuals and private companies in seven districts of Balochistan. These coalmines, or collieries, are located in Degari-Sor-Range near Quetta, Sharigh-Khost-Harnai in Sibi and Degari collieries in Mastung. These coalmines employ some 20,000 mineworkers.

Besides, there are about 5,000 unregistered coalmines in the region, operating in the informal sector, with another around 50,000 mineworkers. Coal is mined using primitive surface (open cast) and underground (deep) mining methods, such as tunnelling, digging and manual extraction, under poor and unsafe working conditions.

Thousands of coalmine workers, mostly bonded labour, work in perilous conditions, dealing with hazardous materials, coal dust and toxic gases, like methane and carbon monoxide, in unsafe working conditions. Generally, the mineworkers are not even provided safety gear, protective clothing, helmets, goggles, etc.

Rescuing equipment, fire-fighting apparatus, methane gas detectors, and proper ventilation in the mines are lacking. There exists no hospital or dispensary or ambulance despite the serious threat of occupational accidents and diseases.

There is no effective mechanism to monitor and regulate the mining operations. All this is despite the fact that mining inspectors and other staff have been deployed by various government agencies, and the regulations framed under the Balochistan Mines Act, 1923, require mine operators to provide such facilities.

The workers are engaged through labour contract system and are paid meagre wages; sometimes not even the minimum wage set by the government. There is no security of jobs. No benefits of any kind are available to the workers, such as overtime, though they work for long hours, and/or any weekly, monthly or annual holidays, pension or gratuity, healthcare, insurance or compensation in case of accidents. They are not registered with any institution of social security, and practically no legal protection is available to them.

The year 2018 was one of the deadliest as 104 miners had reportedly died, though the actual number of deaths could have been much higher. The Supreme Court of Pakistan had on Sept 15, 2018, asked the Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governments to submit reports on the deaths of coalminers and the status of implementation of laws regulating mine safety. But there was no response from the Balochistan government.

The provincial government should implement mining rules and regulations. Though mining is a provincial subject, the federal government should ensure effective enforcement of national labour laws in the province.

The federal government should also ratify international laws and regulations on the mining industry, in particular the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention on Safety and Health in Mines, C-176, which is key to the challenges of occupational safety and health in the mining industry.

The convention, adopted in June 1995, has been ratified by and has been implemented by 34 countries. The Pakistan Labour Federation and the mining labour and trade unions have been urging the government for many years to ratify and implement the Convention, but without success.

Also, the ILO Codes of Practice for Occupational Safety and Health in Coal Mines (1986), and Safety and Health in Underground Coalmines (2006) are relevant, and need to be adopted in Pakistan without further delay.

Hussain Siddiqui
Islamabad

Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2021

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