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'Coal workers are orphans': the children and slaves mining Pakistan's coal, UK

Injuries and fatalities are common among thousands of debt-bonded men and children toiling in one of the world’s harshest work environments

All photographs by Mashal Baloch

by  and 

Main image: Miners in Mach, Balochistan. Photograph: Mashal Baloch/Shah Meer

The spectre of death hovers over the coal mines of Balochistan. Under scorching skies, this turbulent south-west region of Pakistan is home to one of the world’s harshest work environments, where tens of thousands of men and children descend below the surface each day to dig up thousands of tonnes of coal.

The threats of underground explosions, methane gas poisoning, suffocation, or mine walls collapsing are omnipresent and there is barely a single worker across the state’s five massive commercial coal mines who has not been touched by the fatalities that are common here.

“Twenty people that I know of have died underground,” says Luqman Shakir, a 24-year-old from Swat, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Nine years ago, aged 15, Shakir travelled to Balochistan looking for work; he has been a miner ever since. “People often die because of a mine collapse and it takes us 18, sometimes 24, hours to take them out because there is no machinery to remove the collapse; we are on our own.”

Luqman Shakir is a 24-year-old from Swat. He has been a miner for nine years.
  • Luqman Shakir is a 24-year-old from Swat. He has been a miner for nine years.

Wiping his dust-blackened face, Shakir sighs. “When we pull them out, often their bodies are so mangled they cannot even be recognised. Every time I go down the mine, in the back of my mind I always know there is a possibility that I might not come back up.”

Shakir hasn’t seen a sunset for almost a decade. He goes underground before dawn and emerges after dark six days a week, and sleeps for most of his single day off. “Summers are suffocating,” he says, explaining that his impoverished background and lack of education make the mines his only option for work.

“This is my life now.”

‘Coal workers in Balochistan are orphans’

Kids carrying a sack of coal to sell on the main road in Mach, Balochistan.

Coal was first extracted in the mineral-rich Balochistan in the 1850s by the British, who built the railway line still used today to transport the coal through the treacherous mountains of the Bolan Pass.

It has grown into a massive modern industry. With five major coalfields – Mach, Shahrag, Dukki, Chamalang and Quetta – Balochistan still 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 Qambrania research scholar whose work focuses on the mining industry in the region.

Child labourers sorting coal.
  • Child labourers sorting coal.

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.

‘We can’t survive if we don’t work,’ says 15-year-old orphan Noor Mohammed Marri
  • ‘We can’t survive if we don’t work,’ says 15-year-old orphan Noor Mohammed Marri

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. At Mach, the workers’ quarters were a mud building in which more than 10 people shared each tiny room. There was no electricity, running water or a proper bathroom, and drinking water was not provided.

Two coal workers resting in a mud walled room in Mach. More than ten men share each rom.
A kitchen in one of the accommodation buildings.
Accommodation for miners at Mach.
  • Accommodation for workers at Mach is basic in the extreme with no electricity or running water

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.

‘If I had a choice, I wouldn’t stay an hour longer’

Miners working to load a truck with sacks of coal.

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.

Bakth Nazar, a 55-year-old coal manager at a mine in Mach, says he has worked in the coalfields for about 30 years. In that time he has lost three family members in coal mines – including his son – due to the unsafe conditions.

“We work with no facilities, no training and no safety measures,” says Nazar. “But the dilemma for us is that we don’t get paid when we don’t work. The company doesn’t care about our health.”

Bakth Nazar has worked in the coalfields for 30 years. He has lost three family members to unsafe mining conditions.
  • Bakth Nazar has worked in the coalfields for 30 years. He has lost three family members to unsafe mining conditions.

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 has never been paid at all.

“The government did not pay a penny for my brother Azam Khan and cousin who got trapped in coal mines and died last year,” says Nazar.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one mine inspector candidly depicts the horrors he has seen workers endure. Necessary breathing equipment is deemed “too expensive” and therefore not provided, he says. He also describes how a lack of training for workers can have dire consequences.

Sacks of coals being loaded on to a truck in Mach, Balochistan.

He recounts one incident at a mine in Dagari in August 2019, where a cable caught fire underground and ignited gas within the mine, causing workers to fall unconscious and become trapped. Due to a lack of training for such scenarios, other workers and management turned on the fans, which only served to fuel the fire. In that incident two people died and eight suffered life-changing burns.

“There are no emergency ambulances in the majority of coalfields and their surrounding areas. There is a lack of basic health units and hospitals. And even if by luck there is a hospital, you won’t find a doctor or equipment there. There is nothing inspectors can do,” he says.

Khaliqdad Bugti, in charge of a mine in Shahrag, describes how during rainy season the roads often become blocked, leaving workers stranded without food for days and with only their mud huts to shelter in.

“There are no health facilitiesor ambulance and it takes hours for an ambulance to reach us from [regional capital] Quetta,” Bugti says, his voice rising in anger. “The government has established one hospital but there was no medicine. The government does not listen to us.”

A view of coal fields in Mach, Balochistan
A mine shaft, Mach, Balochistan
  • A coalfield and mine shaft in Mach

Debt bondage is also a huge issue. Mohammed Ibrahim, a frail 40-year-old with one hand, explains that this is the situation in which he has found himself. Hundreds of miles away from his home and seven children in Afghanistan, Ibrahim works as a haulage driver to pay off the 50,000 PKR (£250) he borrowed from the manager of the coal mine to get this job in the first place.

“I chose this work because I couldn’t find any other work,” says Ibrahim, “It is very difficult but I have no other way of paying off the debt. I have to work here until I pay the debt.”

Jawad Ali, his manager, chuckles. “I can’t allow Ibrahim to leave without paying my debt. He has to work until he pays [it].”

As well as being a mine manager, Ali works as a jori-sir, whose task is to find and provide mine workers for the contractor – mainly from poverty-stricken villages. He earns at least 10 PKR for each labourer he provides.

Jawad Ali, a coalfield supervisor and jori-sir – someone who finds mine workers for the contractor.
  • Jawad Ali, a coalfield supervisor and jori-sir – someone who finds mine workers for the contractor

“I find labourers and jobless people and provide them advance money if they need it, and in return bring them to work here in coal mines,” says Ali. “They will keep working until they pay the debts. I know who owes money and they are not allowed to leave. This business is being run on debt between labourers to petty managers. Labourers owe me money and I owe money to the contractor. In short, we both can’t leave until we pay our money.”

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.”

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