Criminal exploitation of coolies

Pakistan Railway is a hugely overstaffed and underperforming organisation of 72,000 employees

Naeem Sadiq July 15, 2023
The writer is an Occupational Health & Safety professional also engaged in writing and advocacy on social issues. He can be reached at and tweets @saynotoweapons


We have chains, though no eye beholds them; we are slaves, though men call us free; we must work to live, though they give us such mean wages that we die.—Oscar Wilde


There are approximately 50,000 of them, at the 625 railway stations of Pakistan. They carry the burden of our heavy bags and boxes over their fatigued shoulders, heads and backs. Most suffer from severe musculoskeletal disorders as a result of constantly lifting heavy loads, often for 12 to 14 hours a day, under poor hygienic and harsh weather conditions. They are not just some of the poorest and most exploited workers of Pakistan, but also the only ones who surrender 30% of their daily earnings to a convoluted consortium of Pakistan Railway and its contractors.

Pakistan Railway is a hugely overstaffed and underperforming organisation of 72,000 employees. It is responsible not just for the safe, convenient and timely movement of goods and passengers, but also for the safety and wellbeing of its regular and contracted staff. Arriving at a railway station, the first need of a passenger is to carry the accompanied baggage from the car park to a particular compartment of a train. His last need on reaching his destination is the same event in the reverse order. For both these tasks, he is dependent on a person called a ‘coolie’ — a name that continues to be used since the first Indian train travelled between Bombay and Thane on 16 April 1853.

Coolies perform a vital service for Pakistan Railways. They help thousands of passengers carry their luggage to and from train compartments. They also facilitate the Railways to conduct its train operations without spending a single penny on hiring cargo crew, loaders, trolleys, tagging, weighing, conveyor belts, storage and luggage-management tasks. On the contrary, the Railways earns money on coolies through contractors chosen on the basis of highest bidder at each railway station. The existing system is a powerhouse of officially patronised brutality and exploitation of the coolies of Pakistan.

The contractor collects unskilled labour, of which there is no shortage, and deploys them at the railway station, with a punishing condition that he would extract Rs30 from every Rs100 earned by a coolie. Typically a coolie will be left with only Rs15,000 to Rs22,000 per month. If a coolie falls sick he loses his daily income and also bears the expenses for medical treatment. Treating them as ‘daily wagers’, the contractor does not register the coolies under the government’s social security, EOBI or pension programmes. Thus a coolie could work for 50 years, lugging luggage at railway stations, but will not be entitled to any medical benefit, pension or compensation.

It is ironic that for the past 75 years, every newly appointed Railways minister has made the same set of false promises i.e. monthly stipend, trolleys, uniform and renaming as ‘Madadgar’. Sadly, not one minister felt the need to provide a regular wage structure, social security, EOBI or improving the working conditions of these oppressed individuals.

The citizens of Pakistan need to stand up for the Railways coolies and demand: a) an immediate end to the system that forces them to surrender 30% of their entire daily earnings; b) enrollment of coolies as regular Railways employees; c) registration of coolies under social security and EOBI; d) provision of trolleys similar to the ones used at airports; e) improvement of railway platforms for smooth movement of trolleys; f) installing ramps and elevators where the luggage has to be carried to different platforms via overhead bridges; and g) provision of uniform and renaming coolies as ‘Madadgars’. If without batting an eyelash, Pakistan can raise the salary of its top officials by an extra Rs200,000 per month or add 12 employees and six guards to their pension perks, surely it can provide the above basics to thousands of Railways coolies who are forced to carry the burden of our cruelty.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th, 2023.

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