BY FRANK FORRESTAL
Kinik, Turkey, June 28. Seated at table clockwise from left, miner Engin Kursuncu, worker-correspondent Frank Forrestal, miners Tolga Yilmaz (writing) and Serkan Yilmaz, and worker-correspondent Alyson Kennedy. Forrestal and Kennedy are former miners from the U.S.
KINIK, Turkey — More than 50 workers from this farming area and surrounding villages were among the more than 300 miners killed in the May 13 disaster at the underground Eynez coal mine. In striving for maximum profitability, bosses and government officials disregarded the most basic safety protections.
Working people here are discussing how to organize themselves to defend life and limb.
“When people learned of the accident, the town emptied to go to the mine and rescue the miners,” Serkan Yilmaz, 36, with 15 years of underground mining experience at Eynez, said. “My brother was killed in the mine. He had three kids, one was a newborn baby. He was only 26 years old.”
Kinik, with a population of 13,000, is near Soma, a town of 76,000. The Soma coal basin is the second largest region of coal production in the country. The coal that is mined here is lignite, which is of a poorer quality than bituminous or anthracite coal. “Until the mine disaster we were worried about being arrested if we spoke out,” said Yilmaz, “but now we are raising our voices more and more. We know that the company and the state don’t support us.”
“Of the 28 villages that make up Kinik, 20 have had a miner die from their town,” said Engin Kursuncu, a miner from the Imbat mine. The mine employs 5,500 miners.
Soma Holding has leased Eynez and two other mines from the government-owned Turkish Coal Enterprises since 2005, when the ruling Justice and Development Party privatized mining operations.
Since then the coal bosses have ramped up production. In 2012 Alp Gurkan, co-owner of Soma Holding, boasted the company reduced costs of extracting the coal from $130 a ton in 2005 to $23.80. Today miners are contract laborers, no longer state employees.
Turkey’s rulers are trying to reduce dependency on coal, oil and gas imports. Lignite coal production nationwide has increased tenfold between 2003 and 2012, according to Hurriyet Daily News.
A few weeks after the mine disaster, Soma Holding attempted to reopen their mines, but miners refused to work, and held sit-in protests for 10 days.
One of the Eynez miners involved in these protests, Tevrat Cun, 29, said miners there presented a list of demands to the National Assembly in Ankara. Demands included no miner going underground until serious safety inspections are conducted, no layoffs of miners until inspections are concluded, salary increases, and getting rid of the hated contract labor system.
Cun was busy building support for a July 2 sit-in protest planned for Soma.
As of July 1, only one Soma Holding mine — the Isiklar mine — is working but not at full capacity, according to Ali Sogut, who is employed there. The Eynez and Ata Bacasi mines remain closed.
Union needs to be transformed
The Maden-Is union needs to be transformed, said Engin Kursuncu. About 70 percent of the 13,000 miners in the Soma coalfields are members of this union, he said.
“Many miners call Maden-Is a yellow union but the problem is the officials, who are not chosen by the workers, but appointed from above,” Kursuncu said. “We are fighting to change this where underground miners elect their representatives.”
“The leaders of Maden-Is are in bed with the company,” continued Kursuncu. “Change has to come from the ground floor.”
He said that after the disaster about 300 miners joined another union, Dev. Maden Sen, which is affiliated with the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK).
At the DISK office in Soma, Sogut said he recently joined Dev. Maden Sen, but also remains a member of Maden-Is. He has been visiting miners in the villages to hold discussions on fighting for safety and better working conditions. “We have to take ownership of safety in the mines,” he said.
In an outdoor café, surrounded by olive trees, on the outskirts of Kinik, Militant worker-correspondents met with about a dozen miners who had worked at Eynez.
“I was working near the surface when the incident happened,” said Metin Kursuncu, a miner with 18 years experience. “We think what started the fire was a collapse of coal from the roof, but nobody has exact information. When it collapsed it fell on electrical cables, which weren’t fire resistant.”
No official report has been published on the cause. A few days after the mine disaster, the London Guardian reported, Gurkan said the company “invested a lot of money to ensure the safety of workers,” and that the mine was a “first-class workplace.” The Turkish Ministry of Labour reported that the mine was inspected in March and given a clean bill of health.
So far 24 company officials have been arrested on charges of “causing death by negligence.” According to the Guardian, confiscated company records show “that management ignored dangerously high levels of toxic gas inside the mine for days.”
On June 29, Soma Holding’s lawyers told the court that the company was not at fault and suggested that “the accident might even be caused by sabotage,” according to the Hurryiet Daily News.
The fire broke out close to shift change. “Some second-shift miners entered the mine, but right away six of them fainted,” said Metin Kursuncu. “They were able to get out but one of these miners later died in the hospital.”
“The respirators didn’t work. They were old, the ones I saw were made in 1993,” said Tolga Yilmaz, 25, who worked at Eynez for four years. “There wasn’t really a rescue operation. Almost all the miners were dead from carbon monoxide poisoning when they were found. To make matters worse, none of the families of the dead miners have received any compensation.”
In the aftermath of the mine accident, large protests occurred in Turkey’s biggest cities. Police clashed with demonstrators, using tear gas and water cannons.
In Soma, hundreds of miners joined a demonstration of 2,000, and called for the resignation of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after he gave a news conference where he said the risk of death is the fate of miners. “The protest would have been much larger,” said Engin Kursuncu, “but the police sealed off the main roads into the city. The government brought in thousands of cops from across the country. The military was also deployed in many of the small villages.”
Contingents of steelworkers, glass workers, and public workers, as well as miners from other areas, were part of the demonstrations, Kursuncu said.
Bad working conditions at mine
“The working conditions where the explosion and fire took place were very bad,” said Serkan Yilmaz. “I worked there the week before the accident. The heat was so bad that sweat was swishing around in my boots.”
“The coal seam above us was overheating, which we think contributed to the fire,” Yilmaz said. Miners told the bosses about this but nothing was done.” The week before this area “had been cool like where we are sitting right now.”
Two weeks before the May 13 disaster, Hurriyet Daily News reported that technicians “warned shift supervisors over the poor state of electrical cables.”
Another major safety concern voiced by many miners was the inadequate ventilation system. “We doubted that the air flow was adequate,” said Metin Kursuncu. “It was too weak. When we asked for detectors to check the levels of carbon monoxide and methane, the bosses said they were too expensive.”
Only mining technicians who work for the company carry detectors, miners said. Another major safety hazard was the fact that there was no emergency escape way. Inspections were rare.
Some miners dispute reports that 301 miners were killed. “We think it is many more,” Metin Kursuncu said. “The company didn’t want to say how many miners really died. So many miners died that they ran out of space at local mortuaries. They put miners in cold storage at a fruit company.”
After talking to miners at the café, we visited Cafer Atas, 47, a farmer from the nearby village of Caltikar, whose son and cousin were killed in the mine. “What happened at the mine is the fault of management there,” Atas said, surrounded by more than a dozen family members. “They didn’t do their job and I also don’t believe 301 were killed. There were more. The bosses don’t care about safety and inspectors never go deep into the mine. They knew there was a problem with the coal heating up, but they did nothing.
“My son was only 22. He had just finished his mandatory 20-month military service. None of the miners like their jobs. The working conditions are very bad. Working there is your last option. This is farm country but farming is not enough,” Atas said. “It is very hard to survive because the lira has less and less value.”
Many of the miners we met are family farmers who own or rent small plots of land in the coal basin region — a patchwork of olive trees, potato fields, tobacco, tomatoes, as well as corn fields, rows of peach trees, bell peppers and a number of small food processing factories. Hundreds of farmhands were working in the fields.
Muzaffer Atas, 23, is one of the few miners who escaped the fire. His cousin was among those who did not. “I was in the deepest part of the mine,” he said. “I didn’t hear an explosion. Smoke blocked the main way out. There were about 200 of us. We headed away from the smoke toward the area where the coal is dynamited. The smoke followed us. We moved further away as far as we could go, only six of us survived. I saw dead bodies everywhere, on the ground, on the conveyer belt. Some miners tried to use the belt to get out. To this day the company hasn’t contacted me, no condolences, no help of any kind, nothing.”
“We are some of the lowest paid workers in the country,” said Tolga Yilmaz. “I know friends who work at a boat factory who make 3,000 lira [$1,413] a month. But in the mines, the highest pay is 1,600 lira [$753] a month; the lowest is 1,200 [$565]. You have to work 30 days in a row to make the top rate of 1,600, and hardly anyone makes that.”
Alyson Kennedy, Tony Hunt and Yasemin Aydinoglu contributed to this article.