Once a day, they get to see the sun. The rest of the time, they work deep underground in extreme temperatures ranging from 45-50 degrees Celsius. Despite the treacherous conditions, there is no overtime pay nor anything to eat or drink but water and dry food. This is the life of workers at the Barapukuria coal mine.
The three units of the coal-fired thermal power plant in Barapukuria produce 525 megawatts of power, which goes straight into the national grid.
In the state-owned coal mine in Dinajpur, 1,147 Bangladeshi labourers work alongside 200 Chinese workers after the government signed a contract with the Chinese consortium XMC-CMC for the extraction of coal.
Ershad Hossain, a miner at the plant, said that they work 1,200-1,500 feet underground. He alleges that the authorities do not even note down the names of workers when they enter the mine.
“If a worker goes missing, there won’t be any evidence as there is no registration for us. But when the officers themselves go underground, their names are recorded.”
Shohag, another miner, said that once a worker enters the mine, there is no way for him to get out without completing his work first.
“You have to stay there in the scorching heat for eight hours. The dirt from the coal mixes with our sweat. When I come out I can’t even recognise myself.”
Worker Hazrat Ali claims that he did not receive any overtime wages even after working for more than eight hours.
The wages of Bangladeshi workers in Barapukuria range from Tk 22,000-30,000. There is no health insurance coverage for them. If a worker is crippled in an accident, he receives between Tk 20,000 and Tk 30,000 as compensation.
The Chinese workers are paid their wages in US dollars, but the actual figures they receive could not be verified.
There are five coal mines in the country, but coal is only extracted from the central and southern sections of the Barapukuria mine, according to the mining authorities. Coal has been mined here since 2005 on a commercial basis, using an underground extraction method.
The Geological Survey of Bangladesh (GSB) discovered the Barapukuria mine in 1985. Coal deposits can be found across a 5.25 square kilometre area around 118 to 506 metres below the surface. A coal-fired power plant has been set up at the mine. But not all the coal from the mine is used there.
The quality of the coal at Barapukuria is good enough for power production due to its low sulphur content, according to the mine’s engineers.
One of the miners in Barapukuria said their work is much more challenging than other professions. They come to work every morning and get their blood pressure and pulse rates checked. They have to wear a special helmet with a flashlight mounted on it to navigate the darkness of the underground mine.
If the health parameters are normal, the workers get on a lift and head down to the main mine — a thousand feet below the ground. Then they have to walk a mile to the mine. It is extremely dark and humid inside as there isn’t any proper ventilation system in place. A person’s glasses will fog up in a moment. The further they travel underground, the hotter it gets.
The facility also has special ‘mine cars’.
As of now, no major disasters have been reported at the mine since its inception. But there have been some minor accidents. A few miners have died as well.
The workers are unhappy about their paychecks and the overall work environment and have staged protests over different issues. Currently, they are protesting for the reinstatement of workers who were furloughed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Only 400 of the 1,147 laid-off Bangladeshi miners were brought back to work in January, said Barapukuria Coal Mine Workers Union President Rabiul Islam.
The fate of the furloughed workers hangs in the balance as they haven’t been fired, but are not receiving their salaries either.
Abu Sufian, general secretary of the workers’ union, said they are being subjected to “a kind of torture” by the Chinese contractor firm.
“No labour rights exist here. Although the coronavirus pandemic has ebbed, the 400 Bangladeshi workers are living their lives in ‘captivity’. They don’t have the right to go outside the mine or to contact their families,” he said.
But Barapukuria Coal Mining Company’s Managing Director Kamruzzaman Khan denied all allegations made by the workers.
“They get a 5 percent increment every year and they’re sent down to the mine in line with all the rules.”
On the lack of insurance coverage, he said their contract with the workers includes a clause on compensation and they always pay it accordingly. But the amount is set at Tk 20,000 to 30,000, he added.