Sindh’s Achhro Thar desert is known for its beautiful landscape of sand dunes and lakes. Spread across 23,000 square kilometres, the saline ‘white desert’ named after its natural white sand only produces enough green vegetation to sustain a small amount of livestock. For this reason, its residents are dependent on the eight salt producing lakes in Achhro for a living.
“The salt has rotted our skin and flesh. We do not get any medicine for treatment. We are doing this job out of compulsion and due to poverty.”Jamuna Bai
The Indus ecoregion is home to a number of salt lakes, such as Mudaker, Busriyo, Kharorr, Sanhrri, Banddhi Wari, Senhari and Pani Wari. After a heavy downpour, the lakes fill up with water and the salt appears on the surface. Salt lakes are formed when water is retained in the river basin along with the salt and minerals. When the water evaporates, it leaves behind dissolved salts. The salt is farmed when it reaches a specific thickness and is later refined. Although this ‘solar evaporation’ mining is done with the help of machines in some parts of the world, in Achhro the men and women living in huts close to these lakes do this by hand.
Achar Kolhi has been working on these salt lakes for years. His arms, legs and hands are covered with a salt layer. His feet are covered with green spots — a self-styled ‘treatment’ for cuts to the skin.
“This is Samad bond (a local glue),” he said. “I often get injured while working in the salt lake, so I apply it because nothing else can prevent salt from entering the wound. We often use this remedy for salt water so we can continue to work.”
Samad bond is not a medicine or ointment. It is locally used, especially by carpenters, to stick together different household items. The miners, however, use this glue to apply a thick layer over their injuries sustained by digging the hard surface of the salt. Achar added, “We do not get any medicine for our injuries. It is enough for us to save our wounds from salt by applying this bond.”
The wounds are usually on the hands and fingertips. A salt collector sells his product in solid blocks. The collectors rub it in their hands to make it finer, sometimes leading to fine injuries. Their feet, too, pay a price, as small sharp salt stones can cut them open.
Achar has been working on the lakes since he was a child. He comes early in the morning and works till 6 PM. Along with hundreds of other workers, he spends hours digging the hard layer of salt from the lake surface and crushing it. They then wash it with water and put the salt into bags.
The miners working on these salt lakes live in destitute conditions with no access to healthcare and no money to travel out for miles to visit a medical centre. Many of them live in jhuggis (huts) made of straw and wooden sticks which are erected close to the lakes. Women and men work together, but the earning of both will still keep them below the poverty line.
A loader gets PKR 400 (USD 2.58) for a truck. Eight workers fill the bags during loading, and a bag filler earns PKR 3,000 (USD 19.38) per month. The person who ties the bag also receives PKR 3,000 per month.
For a single bag, Achar is paid a mere PKR 1.50 (USD 0.009) rupees in wages.
“It is cheap labour but we do not have a choice,” Achar said. His father, too, was a salt collector. “Perhaps my son will also be a salt miner.”
Exploiting cheap labour
The salt collected from these lakes is transported across the country, but the whole business is run through an informal system in the hands of local contractors who do not follow any labour laws.
In violation of Pakistan’s labour laws, there is no social security or employees’ insurance from the government’s Old Age Benefits Institution. One contractor denies workers’ complaints. “Workers themselves are willing to work on cheap wages. These locals have been doing this job for many generations, they are happy with us,” he said, requesting that he not be named.
He added, “They are used to working without safety kits. Injuries and wounds are common but they treat them by using some local methods. Their health is not critical.” And while his meaning was that the health of the workers was not critically bad, it is also obvious that the health of workers is not criticially important to the contractors or government.
Kirshan, a resident of Bakhreeji village by the lake, has been filling bags for six years. He is now 18 years old.
“I have been doing this job along with my father, who is a loader on a truck. I fill bags with salt and he loads them on the truck. It is hard to work in the winter but we have no choice.” Kirshan and his father support their family. He said if they ask the contractors to increase their wages, they are told to quit the job as “there are many unemployed people who are ready to work for low wages”.
Most workers perform their tasks without safety kits and don’t take precautionary measures. Currently, there are three lakes near Khipro and Hathongo producing salt. The largest salt lake is called ‘Lake Number 1’ where about 1,000 workers are involved in salt collection. There are 50 female workers.
The neglected needs of women workers
50-year-old Jamuna Bai lives in a village adjacent to the lake. Her job is to wash and clean the salt with lake water.
“We live a miserable life. I started this job when I was young and now I am an old lady — over all these years our days and nights have not changed.”
She added, “When I wash the salt with water, I often get injuries. I sometimes wrap [my hands and feet] in plastic bags but it is not sustainable.”
Jamuna Bai’s family members do the same work. Her elder and younger sons tie the filled bags.
“The salt has rotted our skin and flesh. We do not get any medicine for treatment. We are doing this job out of compulsion and due to poverty. There are some women working who are pregnant but if they ask for leave to rest they won’t get wages and their children will suffer. I want to see my grandson go to school but we don’t have any school nearby.”
The luxury of sweet water
Recently, a local social worker installed four sweet-water taps in Bakhreeji village. For the first time, the villagers were able to receive sweet-water at their doorstep instead of traveling for miles on foot.
Activist Nihal Wadhvani said, “These poor workers are doing their jobs in very tough conditions. I was surprised when I came to know that no safety kit is provided to them. I have seen many male and female workers who had been collecting and loading salt with injured hands and feet. There are no dispensaries available for them. The continuous work in salt water makes their legs handicapped as foot wounds turn into harmful infections. These infections affect the whole body as they are not easy to heal.”
He added that the nearest clinic is too far away from the village, and that after an exhausting day of work they are unable to get medical help. Recently, a school has been established by the provincial government’s Sindh Education Foundation (SEF) —but that is ten kilometres away from Bakhrjee village, hence the children do not go to school.
In Pakistan, minimum wage is set at PKR 17,000 (USD 110) per month but practically the amount is not applicable.
Jamil Junejo, the Programme Manager at the Legal Aid Society, said their security must be insured, as it is described in the occupational health and safety law 2017 by the Sindh government.
The law reads, “Make arrangements to ensure the safety and absence of risk of injury to health of workers in connection with the use, handling, storage, disposal and transport of articles, materials and substances; make arrangements to control and prevent physical, chemical, biological, radiological, ergonomic, psychosocial or any other hazards that affect the safety and health of workers and other persons at workplace.”
Junejo added, “Any worker, whether he is working on salt lakes or in any other industry, faces the same health and social security challenges. Owners do not pay overtime. This is a violation of workers’ rights as well as human rights.”
But then, their health is “not critical”.