Letter from Beirut

Murder in the mines

Print edition : June 13, 2014

An injured miner being carried to safety after the May 13 explosion that ripped through a lignite mine in Soma in south-west of Turkey. Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the mine in Soma on May 14. His dismissive reaction to the accident angered the nation. Photo: Kayhan Ozer/AP

Yusuf Yerkel, adviser to Erdogan, kicks a protester held down by special forces police members during Erdogan's visit to Soma. Photo: AFP

Alp Gurkan, Soma Holding Chairman. Photo: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS

Ramazan Dogru, general manager of Soma Mining Company. Photo: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS

The reaction of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the mining disaster in Soma that killed more than 300 workers, dismissing it as an “ordinary thing”, shows the murderous indifference of the government and profit-thirsty business to workers’ safety and rights.

IN the south-west of Turkey, two hours’ drive north of Izmir, is the small mining town of Soma. Over the past century, Soma’s ground has produced vast quantities of lignite, also known as brown coal. On May 13, during a shift change when 800 miners were below ground, an explosion disabled the mine’s elevator. At least 300 miners died from the explosion and carbon monoxide poisoning. It is likely that the death toll will rise.

Soma’s lignite mines are owned by Soma Komur Isletmeleri (Soma Mining Company), which took over these mines from the government in 2005. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a three-day mourning period and went immediately to Soma. Guarded by 3,500 special policemen, he told the assembled press that what transpired in Soma was an “ordinary thing”, a “work accident”. Erdogan recognised that the miners were angry, given that they had already begun to chant “murderer” as he came to the site. “Let’s not interpret the incident as one that won’t happen in coal mines. These things happen.”

Erdogan is right. These things do happen. But they do not happen as a force of nature or an act of God. These things occur, and have occurred in Turkey with increased frequency, because of the way in which the mining industry has been allowed to develop. Soma Mining’s head, Alp Gurkan, told Hurriyet newspaper before the disaster that his firm had reduced the cost of mining coal from $140 a tonne to $23.8 a tonne “thanks to the operational methods of the private sector”.

What are these “operational methods”? Tayfun Gorgun, head of the Revolutionary Mineral Research and Exploitation Workers’ Union (Dev Maden Sen), pointed out that these methods include subcontracting, lack of care by both the firms and the state inspectors for occupational safety, as well as depressed wages and longer hours for workers. “The only goal is to make money,” he said. “These are not accidents. These are murders.” Gorgun’s sentiment was reflected on Twitter, where the hashtag #kazadegilcinayet (murder not an accident) was widely circulated.

Ordinary things

Turkey has a very poor record of worker safety. The International Labour Organisation data show that it has the highest number of work-related “accidents” in Europe. Between 2002 (when Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came to power) and 2013, work-related “accidents” have resulted in about 14,000 fatalities. Turkey lowered the age limit for workers to 14, bringing in teenagers into the mines. One of the victims of this disaster, Kemal Yildiz, was 15.

A 2013 scholarly paper by Yucel Demiral and Alpaslan Erturk points out that the structure of sub-contracting in mining leads to massive profits for the private firms, but increases the dangers to the workers. Both the owner of a mining contract (Soma Mining) and its myriad labour subcontractors shuttle the responsibility for worker safety to each other. “In some cases,” they write, “the primary employers engage subcontractors to avoid occupational safety and health services.” In addition, they argue, subcontracting “adversely affects the unionisation rate, which is already low and weak in Turkey”. Inadequate unionisation means that the complaints of workers are not attended to by the management. Soma’s workers demonstrated against their firm in November 2013, but their voices were not broadcast to the public or the politicians.

Nevertheless, on April 29, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputies in Parliament tried to pass a law to investigate work-related deaths and injuries in Soma. CHP’s deputy for the Soma region, Ozgur Ozel, had submitted the motion last October with the support of the more conservative Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The MHP’s Erhan Akcay, also from the Soma area, complained that most of the deaths and injuries in the area took place inside the mines, many of them through burns. There is no burn unit in the Soma region. The private firm has not bothered to develop a proper emergency infrastructure (such as including safety rooms underground). The CHP motion was fairly tepid, demanding an investigation into the injuries and deaths, seeking to “find permanent solutions to prevent a repetition of these cases”. The AKP voted against the law. It failed.

Erdogan’s claim that these are “ordinary things” had already been made in the Parliament on April 29 by his party colleague Muzaffer Yurttas, who said that these fatal incidents are in “the nature of the profession”. Fatalities are simply the costs that firms have to bear. Rather than pay well to protect workers, firms find it cheaper to pay compensation to the families after accidents occur.

Extraordinary profits

Erdogan’s AKP has presided over an economic boom that allowed Turkey to move to the ranks of the top 10 national economies in the world. The boom was premised on the privatisation of state assets (such as Soma’s mines) and real estate development (such as Soma’s construction company which has built Istanbul’s Spine Tower residential building). Close association between the emergent economic elite from Anatolia (such as Soma’s Alp Gurkan) and the AKP allowed the latter to benefit as it freed the former to make money at all costs. One of the AKP’s members of the Soma Municipal Council, Melike Dogru, is the wife of Soma Mining general manager Ramazan Dogru. These are incestuous connections between the firm and the party that benefits both. Private mining firms sell coal to the state at a fixed price, which means that they have a captive market. The government is uninterested in a robust inspection regime, whose absence allows the firms to lower wages and disregard the need for expensive safety systems. Lower costs and a fixed and generous purchasing price allow firms to make vast profits, a percentage of which bankrolls the party to power.

Workers’ anger

Soma’s miners are not a radical lot. The waves of protest over the past several decades have passed them by. They vote for the conservative parties and their region is a bastion of fairly pious religiosity. It is only when conditions deteriorated dramatically did they take to the streets against their firm and the government. Their rising resentment exploded in the aftermath of this disaster. Erdogan’s speech at the site was tone deaf. He had no compassion for the people. His was the condolence of the guilty, standing behind statistics of previous mining disasters around the world rather than taking responsibility for the failure to protect workers. No wonder that the people assaulted him. No surprise either that the Deputy Cabinet Chief Yusuf Yerkel was caught on camera kicking a protestor as two policemen held the poor man down. It was a sign of the arrogance and disregard of the AKP towards ordinary people in a conservative region. Even its own base could not be treated with dignity.

Turkey’s unions hastily called for demonstrations across the country. The Gezi Park and May Day crackdowns had brutalised further the security services, which once more brought out their tear gas and water cannons. Many salt-of-the-earth Turkish workers saw the Gezi Park protests as something removed from their concerns—middle-class demands for a park seemed remote from the needs of miners for better ventilation systems. When the police cracked down on Gezi’s protestors in 2013, and against the May Day demonstration this year, the issue moved from the park to police violence. There is little sympathy for the truncheon in the heartland of Anatolia, particularly when it is directed against the miners. Leftist trade unions, such as the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions (DISK) that comprise 600,000 members, were joined by the more conservative union Turk-is, with its two million members. If collaboration develops, it will be bad for Erdogan but good for the burgeoning opposition, which is now under pressure to adopt the workers’ cause as its own.

Turkey’s miners have a militant history. In 1990, the miners of Zonguldak protested the government’s attempt to shut down their mine. One hundred thousand miners marched more than 200 kilometres from that Black Sea mining town to the capital, Ankara. The Great Miners’ Strike remains in the collective memory of the more radical sections of the Turkish working class. Soma is not in that ledger. It cannot be called a bastion of radicalism. It is precisely its conservatism and piousness combined with the current outrage that makes Soma the most dangerous thing for Prime Minister Erdogan and his AKP.

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