Unfortunately, familiar scenes of poverty-stricken miners, blackened faces and bleeding hands, working in extremely challenging conditions without any safety equipment, do not just exist in movies or the past. It is still happening in several parts of the world including Balochistan. On Friday, seven miners died of gas suffocation after being trapped in a coal mine in the Dukki area of the province. Reportedly, colleagues rescued over a dozen miners but seven remained trapped for over 24 hours. The rescue team, which was dispatched from Quetta, arrived too late and by then, the miners, who could have been saved if helped had arrived in time, had lost their lives. As per reports, such incidents are not uncommon in the province, especially in Dukki, where the majority of workers are Afghan nationals.

Coal extracted by these poorly equipped miners from resource-rich areas such as Dukki is used in industries in Punjab and elsewhere. Is it not true that these dangerous jobs are reserved for those who have no other alternatives for employment? Is it also not true that they are paid poorly, provided no compulsory safety equipment and that basic health units are either poorly equipped or do not exist at all in close proximity to mining sites? While we aspire to bring awareness to world on the issue of reckless over-exploitation of natural resources, it would appear that we are failing to appeal to the conscience of those who exploit human beings for business. What good are flourishing industries and running engines if the cost is dead miners? The problem will persist as long as economic activity and reward continues to overshadow human suffering. Protection of labour isn’t about economy. It is a moral issue. An inevitable consequence of better labour laws and safety equipment is higher cost for business and less loss of life, which is of course good for labour and bad for profits. If economic considerations are allowed to dictate laws and safety precautions related to labour force, the latter will always lose and lose big.

In Pakistan, use of labour is synonymous with exploitation of labour. People are desperate. They need work even if it threatens to kill them. The government has done nothing to alleviate their condition and implement standards deemed fit by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Will anyone be held accountable for the incident in Dukki? Who is guilty of failing to provide safety equipment to the deceased miners? Who is responsible for the poor health facilities? Why did it take 24 hours for rescue teams to reach Dukki from Quetta? Why were none available closer to the area? The government must ensure that such blatant exploitation is halted. To understand the situation better, ministers may find it helpful to work alongside the miners in Dukki for a day.