Turkey Erupts Over Mining Tragedy; Many Blame Privatization

Sisi Tang May 17, 2014

Protesters hold coal in their hands during a demonstration for the victims of the Soma mine accident on May 15 near Taksim Square in Istanbul. Tens of thousands protested in cities around the country. (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

A hor­rif­ic min­ing dis­as­ter in Turkey on Tues­day claimed the lives of at least 298 work­ers, a toll that con­tin­ues to climb. Cal­lous respons­es from both the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment and the com­pa­ny that oper­ates the mine have trig­gered wide­spread anger, lead­ing trade unions to launch a one-day strike on May 15 in protest of the country’s poor min­ing safe­ty record.

On Wednes­day, Prime Min­is­ter Tayyip Erdoğan rushed to the site of the acci­dent in the south­west­ern Aegean town of Soma. These types of acci­dents are reg­u­lar occurrences…there are no such things as hav­ing no acci­dents,” he said, read­ing from a list of glob­al mine dis­as­ters since the 19th cen­tu­ry that have had high­er death tolls, high­light­ing cas­es in Chi­na and India. In response, an infu­ri­at­ed crowd repeat­ed­ly kicked his vehi­cle and attempt­ed to encir­cle him, call­ing for his res­ig­na­tion. The cal­lous­ness of his state­ment trig­gered a wave of back­lash on social media and in the streets, as the offi­cial death toll swept above 200 on Wednes­day evening and hun­dreds of the mine’s 5,800 work­ers report­ed­ly remained trapped. Unof­fi­cial reports esti­mate any­where from 400 to 600 deaths. (The exact num­bers are dif­fi­cult to pin down because the acci­dent occurred dur­ing a shift change.)

Pro­test­ers, num­ber­ing in the thou­sands in some major cities, con­tin­ued to spill into the streets through­out the week hold­ing plac­ards that read, This is not an acci­dent, it’s a mas­sacre.” In Istan­bul, Ankara and Izmir, police inter­vened with tear gas and water cannons.

Soma Coal Min­ing Co., the pri­vate com­pa­ny con­tract­ed to oper­ate the gov­ern­ment-owned mine, is deny­ing that the acci­dent was due to neg­li­gence, but admit­ting that there were no func­tion­ing refuge cham­bers in the mine at the time. At a press con­fer­ence on Fri­day in Soma, com­pa­ny own­er Alp Gürkan expressed his con­do­lences and explained that the sole safe­ty cham­ber was in an area that was no longer being active­ly mined, but that the com­pa­ny was plan­ning to build a sec­ond one when the acci­dent occurred. He not­ed that Turk­ish min­ing laws do not require refuge chambers.

The com­pa­ny says the acci­dent was due to a fire whose caus­es are still under inves­ti­ga­tion. Oper­at­ing man­ag­er Akin Çelik said at the press con­fer­ence that such a fire could have hap­pened in a mine any­where in the world. Turkey’s Labor and Social Secu­ri­ty Min­is­ter Faruk Çelik added that there had been no mis­steps in safe­ty checks and inspec­tions pri­or to the accident.

Details remain murky, how­ev­er, and alle­ga­tions of neg­li­gence abound. The Izmir branch of the Cham­ber of Elec­tri­cal Engi­neers, which sent a com­mit­tee of engi­neers to the scene to inves­ti­gate the inci­dent, said the mine’s ven­ti­la­tion sys­tems and poi­so­nous and explo­sive gas detec­tors were inad­e­quate and out­dat­ed. Oth­ers have not­ed the lack of heat-resis­tant pow­er trans­form­ers and elec­tric equipment 

Nedret Durukan, direc­tor of the Union of Cham­bers of Turk­ish Engi­neers and Archi­tects, says that mine work­ers describe long hours under­ground, lack of rest, lack of safe­ty equip­ment and inad­e­quate safe­ty train­ing. Train­ing and edu­ca­tion of work­ers … is viewed as tak­ing away from work­ing hours,” she says.

Turkey’s largest unions staged a one-day strike on Thurs­day over the mine tragedy, demand­ing that the gov­ern­ment enforce mine reg­u­la­tions. This is not the first dis­as­ter we’ve expe­ri­enced. In the past few years, we’ve seen hun­dreds of inci­dents, and we’ve lost thou­sands of work­ers, ” the Con­fed­er­a­tion of Turk­ish Trade Unions (TÜRK-İŞ) gen­er­al sec­re­tary Pevrul Kavlak said in a state­ment to the press this week, list­ing off pre­vi­ous min­ing acci­dents in Afşin-Elbis­tan and Zonguldak 

In 2005, Soma Hold­ing took over the reins of the mine from the gov­ern­ment amid a push for pri­va­ti­za­tion that began in the 1980s and has become a pil­lar of the rul­ing Jus­tice and Devel­op­ment Party’s (AKP) neolib­er­al restruc­tur­ing. Recent laws allow the gov­ern­ment to sell roy­al­ty ten­ders,” in which the oper­a­tion of the mine is award­ed to whichev­er com­pa­ny offers the cheap­est coal extrac­tion bid. The coal is then sold back to the gov­ern­ment for the mar­ket. Some say the prof­it-dri­ven cost cuts, height­ened pro­duc­tion tar­gets and slack­ened gov­ern­ment over­sight came at the expense of work­er safety.

The pri­vate min­ing sec­tor has enforced an intense work­ing tem­po in order to extract more coal, which can result in cracks in work­er safe­ty,” Con­fed­er­a­tion of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Trade Unions of Turkey (Dev Maden-Sen) rep­re­sen­ta­tive Tufan Günay told a local pub­li­ca­tion. Soma Coal Min­ing Co.’s Gürkan said at the Fri­day press con­fer­ence that the com­pa­ny has a nar­row prof­it mar­gin of only 10 to 15 per­cent at the Soma mine, and that any increas­es in prof­its have stemmed from more advanced pro­duc­tion techniques.

Video footage of Turkey’s Ener­gy Min­is­ter Tan­er Yıldız prais­ing the com­pa­ny last year for pri­or­i­tiz­ing work­ers’ safe­ty” has made the rounds on social media this week, receiv­ing bit­ing com­ments from viewers. 

While Chi­na and India may be typ­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with poor work­er safe­ty stan­dards, the dis­as­ter at Soma sheds light on Turkey’s short­falls. Accord­ing to fig­ures from the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Research Foun­da­tion of Turkey, more min­ers die every year per mil­lion met­ric tons of exca­vat­ed coal in Turkey than in Chi­na, where fatal­i­ty rates have fall­en since 2000 as the cen­tral gov­ern­ment closed small, under-inspect­ed rur­al mines, insti­tut­ed new safe­ty stan­dards and cranked up fines for com­pa­ny negligence. 

The lat­est dis­as­ter also under­scores Turkey’s lack of domes­tic nat­ur­al gas and oil pro­duc­tion, which leaves it heav­i­ly reliant on coal and on oth­er coun­tries for ener­gy imports. Despite an ongo­ing push for nat­ur­al gas, coal still accounts for about 26 per­cent of Turkey’s ener­gy con­sump­tion. As Turkey con­tin­ues tap­ping into its domes­tic coal reserves in spite of ongo­ing mine acci­dents, Soma has jolt­ed the coun­try into self-reflec­tion not only over occu­pa­tion­al safe­ty stan­dards, but also over ener­gy consumption.

Anoth­er glar­ing detail that has drawn fire in the wake of the acci­dent is that two weeks ages, the rul­ing AKP par­ty quashed a motion in par­lia­ment by the oppo­si­tion Repub­li­can People’s Par­ty to inves­ti­gate work-relat­ed acci­dents at Soma coal mines. Also trou­bling are wide­spread, though unproven, asser­tions that Soma Hold­ing hand­picked the union lead­ers who were rep­re­sent­ing Soma’s mine workers. 

On Fri­day, the AKP sub­mit­ted a pro­pos­al for a par­lia­men­tary inquiry into the acci­dent, though no top man­agers or com­pa­ny exec­u­tives have been impli­cat­ed as of yet. The pros­e­cu­tors inves­ti­gat­ing the case have said the man­agers they planned to arrest had died in the mines.

Final­ly, labor unions have long crit­i­cized big fac­to­ries and min­ing com­pa­nies for out­sourc­ing to sub­con­trac­tors, which are noto­ri­ous for lack­ing reg­u­la­tion and push­ing bound­aries on employ­ee rights. Soma Hold­ing has offi­cial­ly denied using sub­con­trac­tors, but jour­nal­ists in Turkey have raised spec­u­la­tion that it was indeed employ­ing unin­sured work­ers through sub­con­trac­tors. This dis­as­ter should be a les­son for those who have turned this coun­try into a heav­en for sub­con­trac­tors and for those who have cre­at­ed an order based on exploita­tion,” said Kavlak.

Sisi Tang, a for­mer stu­dent of his­to­ry, is now a writer and trav­el­er based in Istanbul.

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