In the shadows: Unearthing struggles of Balochistan's coal miners

At least 20,000 labourers are employed in 2,500 mines across Balochistan

QUETTA: Working in semi-darkness and breathing in corrosive air, the coal miners of Balochistan risk their lives daily for a meagre income just to be able to support their families and feed their children.

“There is a high risk of suffocation but we have to do it as we are helpless,” shared 45-year-old Salahuddin who works at the Soranj coalmine.

Salahuddin and other coal miners continue working on public holidays including Labour Day. “We know its Labour Day today. We know that labourers across the country have a holiday today. However, we can't take a day off as we have to feed our families. We have to do work today,” Salahuddin added.

Another miner Abdul Hameed, 58, remarked: “If we don’t earn money one day then how will we keep the stoves at our homes burning?”

The miners, who work at least 10 hours a day, shared that they earn Rs400toR500 for their daily work. The labourers don’t even have access to social security, old age benefits, proper housing, health and water facilities or education for children.

Coal miners having a cup of tea (qahwa) during break time in Sorenj coal. Photo: Fayyaz Ahmed

At least 20,000 labourers are employed in 2,500 mines across Balochistan, according to government sources.

No respite                                     

Balochistan Mines Workers Federation member Bakht Nawab shared that there is neither favourable conditions for the miners nor any security arrangements or emergency rescue services.

Many miners have lost their lives or suffered a physical disability in frequent accidents in the mines, he shared. “The miners engage in rescue work themselves.”

Coal miners work at Soranj coalmine in Balochistan. Photo: Fayyaz Ahmed 

He also shared that at least 75% miners suffer from some ailment, adding that hepatitis and tuberculosis are common among miners.

“The government just makes big claims and false promises,” he added.

Fatalities in the coal-mining sector in the country are becoming commonplace highlighting the need for better labour protections.

Coal mine workers carrying 100 kg coal bag on their back to the truck in Sorenj coal mine field. Photo: Fayyaz Ahmed 

Mines Chief Inspector Iftikhar Ahmed accepted that there is a lack of facilities in the mines. "Despite meagre resources and facilities, another major reason for the untoward accidents is the lack of training of miners," he said.

The miners come to the mines for three months and complete their work. After three months, new miners are employed, he explained, adding that there is never enough time to train the labourers.

A miner covered in coal dust sits inside a mine. Photo: Reuters 

He also remarked that providing basic facilities to miners is the sole responsibility of owners of coal mines, adding that owners are often fined over accidents in mines.

Ahmed also shared that the main problem lies in the fact that mines work on contract system. “Most owners have leased out their mines to contractors,” he said, adding that the owners are only focused on their earnings and not the conditions of the workers.

The government is working to improve the conditions for the miners, he added.