Murder in a Turkish mine

A wave of revolt has swept Turkey in the wake of the country’s worst ever mining disaster. Thousands are directing their anger at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Çetin Uygur, former head of the miners’ union Maden-İş, said an explosion and subsequent fire in the Soma coalmine in the province of Manisa is “truly a work-related murder of the highest degree. We are currently facing the worst work-related murder in the country’s history.”

The official death toll of more than 300 surpasses that of the last major mining disaster in Turkey, in Zonguldak in 1992, which claimed 263 lives.

But locals claim that the official figures understate the true loss of life. One miner, quoted in the British Guardian, said, “This is disgraceful; an incredible lie. They are trying to cover up the exact numbers of the accident.”

The response of the already unpopular Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan added further to the outrage. “These things happen”, he said, before ridiculously citing examples from 19th century Britain to make his case. Just two weeks prior to the explosion, the AKP government refused an investigation into the working conditions of the mine.

A 2010 report by the Turkish Chamber of Architects and Engineers (TMMOB) warned of major safety deficiencies in the Soma mines. Ventilation systems, pre-warning mechanisms and faulty wall supports all presented a serious danger to workers’ safety, according to the report.

“No production should be made before the necessary research has been completed. Carrying out production with the lack of experience might lead to disaster”, the TMMOB report warned.

A survivor told Turkish media: “This is not something that suddenly happened. I can tell you that there are people here who are dying, people who are injured and it’s all because of money. People are dying and there’s nothing we can do about it. They send us here like lambs to the slaughter. We are not safe doing this job.”

Soma Holding, the parent company of Soma Coal, has close ties with the AKP government. The Soma mine was privatised in 2005. Melike Doğru, a councillor with the AKP, is also the wife of the general director of Soma Holding Mine Enterprises. Soma Coal also provided charity coal bags which were distributed by the AKP during the previous local elections.

Ninety percent of the 5,000 work accidents recorded in the Soma region in 2013 were in the mines. Most of these were burns, but the hospitals in the area do not have the necessary burn units.

President of Turkish Labour Union of Mine Search and Enterprises Tayfun Görgün stated: “As soon as these mines were privatised, accidents started increasing dramatically because sub-contraction has gradually become a state policy.

“People started to work in mines on very low wages, and also illegally. Occupational safety has been ignored. Safety precautions have been put aside in order to lower the costs. Inspectors started to ignore the deficiencies. The only goal is to make more money. These are not accidents, but murders, for which everybody is responsible including the inspectors, ministers and prime minister.”

Nobody needed to tell this to Soma residents: when Erdogan visited the area he was forced to hide in a local supermarket as protesters denounced him as a “murderer and thief” and carried banners reading, “It was not an accident, it was murder.”

Protests across the country have been met with heavy police repression. Turkish police have used rubber bullets, teargas and water cannons to disperse crowds and quash resistance. Perhaps the most disturbing image has been the one of Yusuf Yerkel, an advisor to Erdogan, taking aim for a running kick at a protester who was being held by riot police.

A one-day strike was called on 15 May by the major trade unions. Further and greater industrial action is what is needed to bring down the Erdogan government that callously murders workers in the pursuit of profit.