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.
We do not want people to stop trekking – porters need the work. So in 2002 Tourism Concern threw its weight behind the efforts of the International Porters Protection Group to support better conditons for all porters. We collaborated with the trekking industry and UK tour operators to develop a code of practice highlighting minimum standards of working conditions that could be used as a basis for policies on porters’ rights. Nowadays there is no excuse for a company organising treks to plead ignorance about good practice. Sadly, this doesn’t mean the issues have gone away.
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.
What can you do?
Despite progress in raising the issues, many porters continue to have their human rights abused by trekking companies.
So it’s vital we continue to ask questions of tour operators or trekking companies if porters’ working conditions are not to be left out in the cold. Here’s what you can do.
Only book your trek with a tour operator that has a verifiable Porters Policy.
Additionally always make sure that any porters you use:
- Have clothing appropriate to season and altitude that provides protection from cold, rain and snow. This may mean: windproof jacket and trousers, fleece jacket, long johns, suitable footwear (boots in snow), socks, hat, gloves and sunglasses.
- Have a dedicated shelter, either a room in a lodge or a tent (the trekkers’ mess tent is no good as it is not available till late evening), a sleeping mat and a decent blanket or sleeping bag. They should be provided with food and warm drinks, or cooking equipment and fuel.
- Are provided with life insurance and the same standard of medical care as you would expect for yourself.
- Are not paid off because of illness/injury without the leader or the trekkers assessing their condition carefully. The person in charge of the porters must let their trek leader or the trekkers know if a sick porter is about to be paid off. Failure to do this has resulted in many deaths. Sick/injured porters should never be sent down alone, but with someone who speaks their language and understands their problem, along with a letter describing their complaint. Sufficient funds should be provided to cover cost of rescue and treatment.
- Are never asked to carry a load that is too heavy for their physical abilities (maximum: 20 kg on Kilimanjaro, 25 kg in Peru and Pakistan, 30 kg in Nepal). Weight limits may need to be adjusted for altitude, trail and weather conditions; experience is needed to make this decision.
- Are over 16. Child porters should never be employed.