Coal miners in Turkey
fight for safer conditions
Thousands strike after bosses’ greed kills over 300
Miners in Soma, Turkey, argue with government officials May 26. Workers from three mines went on strike after more than 300 miners were killed in May 13 fire at Eynez coal mine.
BY SETH GALINSKY
Coal miners in Soma, Turkey, walked off the job demanding bosses implement safety measures after more than 300 of their fellow workers died and 486 were injured in a May 13 fire in the underground Eynez mine there.
Workers at Soma Holding’s Ata Bacasi and Isiklar mines held sit-ins for 10 days at local government offices until officials agreed that those mines would not be reopened until safety conditions are improved. As of May 28 the mines are still closed.
Supervisors from Soma Holding sent text messages to Eynez miners on May 25 ordering them to start work at the company’s other two mines in Soma or be fired, reported Today’s Zaman website. But no miners showed up for work the next day. The company sent shuttle buses to pick up workers, but they returned empty.
Hundreds of miners stormed the headquarters of the Maden-Is union in Soma May 26 after several days of sit-ins in front of those offices. “If [union officials] had done their jobs, these incidents might not have happened,” miner Engin Tursucu told Cihan news agency.
“Whenever there are union elections, they put the name they want in an envelope and vote him in,” miner Sevket Duman told Cihan. “Whoever the company says is voted in. If anybody objects, they fire him.”
Regional Maden-Is President Tamer Kucukgencay resigned after he was repeatedly booed by the crowd.
Workers across the country have joined protests in solidarity with the miners, from Edirne in the northwest and Zonguldak on the Black Sea coast to Diyarbakir in Kurdistan and Antalya province in the south. The protests were fueled by the open contempt of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who told miners that accidents “are always happening” and “death is the destiny of coal miners.”
While the cause of the May 13 fire has not been reported, more information has come out on the company and government’s refusal to implement basic safety measures, despite numerous reports on safety violations prior to the disaster.
A 2010 “Work Accidents in Mines” report by the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects warned that the lignite coal in the Soma basin has a high methane level. “There should be no production before the necessary research has been completed,” the report said. “The lack of experience might lead to disaster.”
The mine did not have an alternative escape route, the report noted, and did not have an adequate ventilation system in place. The mine bosses and government ignored the warnings.
Sefa Koken, a former safety technician at the Eynaz mine, told freelance journalist Alexander Christie-Miller that his job was to put out frequent small fires in the mine and to seal methane leaks three or four times per shift.
Koken told CNN Turk that miners had no set meal-break times and that there were no bathrooms underground. Other miners reported that the company doesn’t provide gloves. Miners work six days a week, earning a base rate of $25 a day.
Labor Minister Faruk Celik denied that the mine was unsafe. “The mine in Soma was inspected eight times,” he told the Turkish press. “Inspectors would have immediately taken action if they found anything life-threatening.”
But miners report that the company received advance notice of inspections and the inspectors never visited the deeper mine shafts. “That is where they should be checking,” miner Allahverdi Elitog, told the Financial Times.
Not only did the mine not have a safe room, but the gas masks miners were issued were more than 15 years past their expiration date. According to CNN Turk, the cheap gas masks made in 1993 were designed to last only 45 minutes, while newer masks last two hours. The fire sent thick smoke and carbon monoxide throughout the mine.
Turkey has one of the highest rates of on-the-job injuries and fatalities in the world. According to the Economic Research Foundation of Turkey, on average seven miners die in Turkey every year for every million tons of coal extracted. In China the rate is one miner killed for every million tons.
Alp Gurkan, chairman of Soma Holding, the private company that has run the government-owned mine, boasted to the Hurriyet daily two years ago that he had reduced the costs of extracting coal from $130 per ton in 2005 to $23.80.
“C’mon, work faster,” “C’mon, produce more coal,” “C’mon, c’mon,” bosses shouted at miners every day, Today’s Zaman reported May 22.
“Work safety? There is no work safety. They cut corners wherever they can,” one Soma miner, who asked that his name not be used, told the Guardian. “The foremen receive a bonus if we produce more coal than planned. So all they worry about is working faster and extracting more coal.”
Thousands of workers, including miners from Soma, demonstrated May 25 in Istanbul against the growing use of temporary workers — taseron in Turkish — in mining, industry and government. Many of the miners who died in Soma were taseron.
The demonstration was organized by the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, the Confederation of Turkish Labor Unions, Confederation of Public Workers’ Trade Unions, Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, Turkish Medical Association, and the Turkish Dental Association.
Trying to deflect blame away from the government for the miners’ deaths, prosecutors have detained eight mine bosses and executives, including Soma Mining Chief Executive Can Gurkan, the son of the company owner, but no formal charges have been filed.
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