Turkish mine workers killed by neoliberalism

Issue 
Police use water cannon on protesters angry at the Soma mine explosion that has killed hundreds of workers.

On May 13, at 3pm, Turkey witnessed one of the biggest workplace murders in its history. After a huge explosion, more than 700 mine workers were trapped in Soma Coal, a private lignite mine in Soma, in the western province of Manisa.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has tried to minimise the death toll, while deploying hundreds of soldiers and police officers to the town and the miners’ village of Eynes to head off possible unrest.

Ten hours after the explosion, energy minister Taner Yildiz declared the death toll was 166, but numbers were sure to rise. The Disaster and Emergency Directorate declared on May 14 that 265 bodies had been reached by that afternoon. Calls for immediate action are rising everywhere across the country.

Cetin Uygur, a mining engineer and former chairperson of the Underground Mine Workers Trade Union, an affiliate of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions, described the tragedy as the greatest workplace massacre in the history of the Turkish working class.

In the hours after the explosion, the government tried to minimise the death toll by declaring that only five were killed in the explosion. However, by that night, a widespread news blackout by the mainstream media broke down and Uygur’s statement regrettably proved to be real.

Yildiz's first response was that “death toll figures are not important”. When forced to acknowledge that many deaths had occurred, Yildiz continued to dismiss the non-official statements by saying: “Even though the previous information given by the unauthorised persons about the death toll correspond to our present data, this does not make them right.”

Yildiz’s statement was not without reason. Soma Holding, the parent company of Soma Coal, has close ties with the AKP government. Melike Dogru, the wife of the general director of Soma Holding Mine Enterprises, is a councillor from the government party.

Soma Coal also provided the infamous charity coal bags that were distributed by the AKP during the previous local elections. Charity distribution is a key political tool of the governing party to recruit support from the country’s poor.

Soma Holding has profited greatly from its relations with the AKP government. Soma Holding entered the underground mining sector during the privatisation drive of the 1990s. Its interests were strengthened by the decision of the AKP government to legalise the “royalty” system, which is based on renting in return for a coal share, in 2005.

Soma Holding president Alp Gurkan said that, thanks to the royalty system, the company has been able to cut the cost of coal from US$130-140 per ton to $23.80 per ton, including the royalty share.

The subcontracting of unskilled mining labour was one of the main factors in cutting the costs. It means the average monthly wage of nearly 5000 mine workers is only $500.

The company also entered into the field of urban pillage in 2006. It bought the Tilage building firm and started transferring profits obtained in the subcontracted lignite mining sector to investments in the high-profit real estate and building sector in İstanbul.

The company has two important building investments in İstanbul — the Maslak Spine Tower in Sariyer and a shopping mall in the Anatolian-side district of Kartal.

A proposal for a parliamentary investigation into the working conditions of Soma mines, proposed by opposition parties, was refused on April 29 by the majority votes of AKP deputies.

Yıldız raised the death toll to 201 in a statement on May 14. But rescue workers, trade unions and other professional groups in the region are worried that since nearly 700 miners were underground during the shift change, the figure may rise dramatically.

Rescue workers said the bodies of mine workers found underground had not yet been removed because there is not enough space to store them in the cold storage and abattoir that is standing in as a makeshift morgue. In several examples, the bodies of dead workers were taken to hospital with oxygen masks attached to their faces to mislead the thousands of miners’ family members waiting in front of the hospitals.

In Soma, which has a population of 100,000, each family has been affected by the accident by losing either a relative or a neighbour. Most of the workers were reportedly killed by carbon monoxide poisoning because the fire started in the ventilation area.

Due to the disinformation of the government and mainstream media, and the difficult conditions around the mine due to the explosion, there is still no exact information about the real reason for the accident.

Expert mining engineers from professional groups at the scene said the fire was started by either an explosion at an underground transformer or in the command room.

However, trade unions and professional groups from the mining sector have emphasised that privatisation and the use of subcontractors has seriously weakened workplace safety at the lignite mines. Most of the workers in the region say work accidents are now daily facts of life.

Various trade unions and Gezi Resistance forums began issuing calls for action on May 14, although several demonstrations began he night of the explosion around the country.

In Ankara, Eskisehir, Canakkale, Istanbul and Antalya, university students and others staged marches and sit-ins in various squares at midnight on May 13.

[Abridged from www.sendika.org.]