First week of May 2018 brought the sad news of coalmines tragedies from the outskirts of Quetta — 23 miners lost their lives in accidents in Marwar and Surrange locations around the provincial capital. Most of these labourers were from Shangla, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. According to Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation, more than 100 miners lose their lives due to various types of accidents.
Occupational safety is an illusions for miners and many other labourers working for paltry wages in the most dangerous of circumstances. Anyone who is familiar with the working of formal and informal enterprises in services and manufacturing sector may be aware about the predicaments faced by workers across the country. Whether miners in the rough terrains of Balochistan, kiln workers in Punjab, welding apprentices in Sindh or construction labour in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the workplace dangers that haunt these hardworking folks are not different.
Bulk of the unskilled labour that works in various enterprises is hired contractually. There are influential contractors who get contracts through their past links in the respective sector. The main objective of such contractors is to minimise the input cost to a bare minimum in order to maximise profits. While investment in procuring material and hardware is also restricted to a bare minimum, the greatest ‘restraint’ is applied in providing facilities for the labour. One does not find any worthwhile provision of administering first aid or removal to a health facility in case of an emergency. For machine operators and handlers of hazardous tools and plants, any small mistake can prove fatal. Many issues need to be examined in this state of affairs.
Pakistan possesses a reasonably elaborate set of laws, statutes and covenants to deal with issues of occupational safety and hazard prevention. Many of them have their origin from the British colonial times. Factories Act of 1934, Dock Labourers Act of 1934, Mines Act of 1923 and Workmen Compensation Act of 1923 are examples. These laws provide the vital statutory cover for overseeing issues such as general cleanliness of the workplace, ventilation and fumes control, dust and suspended particles management, provision of essential facilities such as first aid, clean drinking water, lavatories and resting spaces, vaccination and site management for the well-being of labour.
Similarly, a well laid out manual is available that governs the working norms in mining. The enforcement of these statutes becomes the responsibility of the federal and provincial governments. The relevant government department is mandated to oversee the working of such enterprises through a pool of inspectors to ensure that the prescribed conditions and props are provided at the working site. But this is seldom found. Six miners died last month after inhaling poisonous gas in Darra Adamkhel. Inappropriate safety arrangements were cited as the reasons in this tragic episode. Poor mine conditions, erratic and infrequent mine inspections, absence of basic medical and emergency facilities and a callous attitude of employers and government officials are some of the reasons found in these situations.
Construction workers of skilled and unskilled category are another major category of labour. Development of roads and highways, construction of large and medium scale buildings, repairs and expansion of various facilities, hydro-infrastructure such as dams, canals and waterways are some of the routine locations where this vast category of labour is engaged. They are mostly employed through feeble contractual arrangements by the contractors or labour supplying enterprises. Thus the rights and privileges are almost non-existent for this captive labour force. It is found that they are exposed to multiple hazards of various kinds, many of which lead to fatalities.
While excavating in deep terrains, often the trench walls cave in and cause death of workers. The contractors seldom provide precautionary bracing to prevent the earth from falling down. In the eventuality of concreting, the cement causes burns as protective gloves and other components of gear are not provided. Labourers also fall down from scaffoldings around building sites as safety belts are not provided. Sometimes the contractors use worn out shuttering and scaffolding that buckle in due the load of material or workers. One also does not find safety helmets, leading to head injuries from falling material or stones, in case of road projects. Another sad aspect is the fact that accidents are not reported.
Healthcare workers in our tertiary facilities and other sub sectors are also prone to many forms of occupational hazards. One observation is the violence caused in public (and perhaps private) hospitals by the accompanying persons of the patients upon the doctors, nurses and paramedical staff. Negative media impact, lack of security arrangements, long waiting time (for patients) and unmet patient demands are some of the possible reasons that lead to violent attitudes of attendants of patients and bystanders. Unchecked exposure to contagious and hazardous diseases is another serious issue.
Many healthcare workers contracted such diseases when they attempted to treat patients coming with similar ailments. Immunization workers, especially those dealing with polio campaigns, have been most vulnerable. Since 2012, 70 workers have been killed and many injured in violent attacks. Many lady workers have also been targeted. It is believed that misconceptions and suspicions are principle reasons for this state of affairs. Some ultra-orthodox folks believe that these vaccines are a prelude to reproduction control. Others consider these workers as possible spies working for national or international agencies. A mother and daughter team of polio vaccinators were killed in Quetta in January this year.
The government must initiate a focused drive for implementing the safety prescriptions in the existing laws. An overseeing mechanism must be created at the district level comprising municipal councilors, industrial relations organisations such as Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), employers’ bodies such as Employers Federations of Pakistan and labour representatives. Labour supervisors should be trained for ensuring compliance with occupational safety issues. Inspection procedures for mines and their frequency must be made mandatory without any lapse.