KARACHI: Before the trains come racing down, away from the hubbub of railway stations, behind the noise of railways are the gang men. The workers, also called trackmen, cater to the railway tracks come hail or shine. They work in groups which in railway terms are known as ‘gangs’. Supervisors divide them up into different gangs in the morning and hand them their assignments for the day.
The gang men have to pack gravel and stones to level tracks, repair wooden or cemented railway sleepers and look after the general condition of the tracks. The work is hard with low pay.
Limited and outdated equipment means that the workers have to carry tons of weight on their shoulders. There are never enough trolleys so the men sometimes have to walk miles carrying heavy sleepers.
The arduous work is aggravated by the bosses’ indifference towards their employees, said the workers. “Our bosses don’t even treat us like human beings. Sometimes, it feels like bonded labour,” said 50-year-old Zahoor, who was working at the Cantonment Station, Karachi.
A group of gang men is supervised by a key-man. Talking to The Express Tribune, one of the key-men, Ghulam Hassan, explained that their duty is to identify faults on the tracks. One gang usually comprises five members and has to work on tracks as long as four to five kilometres. He reiterated the gangmen’s words, saying that their higher officials rebuffed their requests for better equipment. “They tell us to just focus on what they’ve asked us to do.”
Leave alone latest technology, the railway department does not even provide them with enough spades and hammers, Hassan said. Sometimes, the workers have to sit in the scorching sun and wait for hours for other labourers to get back so they can take the equipment from them.
This is made worse by the fact that the workers are not paid overtime either. In some emergencies, the men have had to work for around 24 hours straight without any compensation.
Gang men do not have many growth opportunities in their line of work. Hassan, who has worked in the railway department for 30 years, still gets Rs9,990 per month. His pay is only slightly better than the rest of the gang men who claim that despite working for a government department, they do not get the minimum wage.
“We are supposed to work for around eight hours, but since there is a shortage of employees, we are asked to work two to three hours extra every day,” said Hanif, who joined the business about three years back. “The government has announced a minimum wage of Rs7,000 but I still get just Rs6,300,” he complained.
Many gang men also said that they might get free tickets to travel in the trains but the tickets did not get them seats. We have to sit on the floor with our families, said Khuda Buksh Butt, a worker.
The gang men are not even given free medicines, although they are entitled to medical benefits. “Doctors at the railway hospital simply refuse to give us medicines, forcing us to buy them from the market,” the gang man accused, “Only higher officials seem to benefit.”
Assistant Way Inspector, who is incharge of all the tracks from Cantonment to Landhi, said that they have just one trolley to drag heavy loads from one place to other. The ‘gangsters’ operate the loaded trolley manually. However, the railways divisional engineer has promised to provide more trolleys and other equipment to them soon, said the inspector.
According to him, there are around 20 gangs working between Cantonment and Landhi Railway Stations. He estimated that the total number of gang men working from Karachi to Hyderabad was around 1,000.
He admitted that the department did not have enough workers which is why the gang men had to work overtime sometimes. “But more people will be appointed soon,” he reassured.
Similarly, Divisional Engineer Way and Works Shafique Ahmed told The Express Tribune that he realised the importance of the gang men. He shrugged off the blame for the poor working conditions, saying that he had just joined the department and would soon look into the problems faced by these workers.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2010.
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