When mountain trekking was becoming big business in the early 2000s the majority of UK operators running trekking tours were not addressing porters’ rights and working conditions. But as a result of a ground-breaking campaign by Tourism Concern, Trekking Wrongs: Porters’ Rights, over half of UK trekking tour operators adopted our code of conduct for improved working conditions for mountain porters. The successes of this campaign also informed other campaigns and industry codes of conduct. But the work of supporting and protecting the porters, who literally carry a heavy burden for holidaymakers, is never over. So we continue to highlight this issue.
Mountain trekking – it’s exhilarating, it’s beautiful, it’s challenging. But how many of us could do it without the porters who carry our luggage and equipment? Porters are an essential part of treks. However, they often suffer appalling working conditions.
Frostbite, altitude sickness and even death can be the cost for the porters carrying trekkers’ equipment in the Himalayas, on the Inca Trail in Peru and at Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Lack of shelter, inaequate food and clothing, and minimal pay are commonly faced problems.
For example, most Nepalese porters are poor farmers from lowland areas, unused to high altitudes and harsh mountain conditions. Nepalese porters suffer four times more accidents and illnesses than Western trekkers. Reports of porters being abandoned by tour groups when they fall ill are not unusual. Porters have even been abandoned in life-threatening blizzards while trekkers were rescued by helicopter.
These problems are repeated worldwide, leaving some porters to believe they are simply seen as beasts of burden. In the words of a Peruvian porters’ syndicate: “We suffer humiliation upon humiliation, and are treated as less than human.” A tour operator in Pakistan reported that the way porters are treated amounts to modern slavery.
Continued human rights abuse
Tourism Concern’s 2002 campaign on this issue addressed the roots of this problem: the policies and practices of the tour operators who the porters ultimately work for. We also campaigned publicly on this issue to raise awareness amongst trekkers and mobilise their support for improved industry practice. The majority of UK operators now have policies on porters, paving the way for improved pay and working conditions for hundreds of porters. Tourism Concern’s code of conduct has been used by the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) to develop its own Guidelines for Proper Porter Treatment. KPAP, based in Tanzania, continues to monitor porters’ working conditions, encourage and track adherence to the Guidelines amongst trekking companies, and promote awareness amongst trekkers of companies aspiring to better practice.
But despite progress in raising the issues, many porters continue to have their human rights abused by trekking companies. So it’s vital to continue to ask questions of tour operators or trekking companies if porters’ working conditions are not to be left out in the cold.
There are now many organisations providing information and taking action. Longest established is the International Porters Protection Group . Its website provides links to other activists in different parts of the world.