Yildirim works at Ata Bacasi, one of the company’s two other mines in Soma. When asked about safety training, he replied, “What training? They took us in the morning, handed us the helmet and boots and took us underground.”
Miners at Soma’s Ata Bacasi, Eynez and Isiklar mines have for weeks been refusing to go to work until safety conditions are improved.
“At first management’s response was to say miners were off until June 1 and they would still get paid. But the workers insisted on safety measures,” Cafer Alp, a leader of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, told the Militant in a May 30 phone interview from Izmir, a couple hours drive from Soma. “There was so much pressure coming from the workers, the government had to say the mines are unsafe” and close them indefinitely.
“The miners don’t want to die in the mine,” said Alp who has been to Soma twice since the disaster, talking to miners who want to affiliate with the confederation.
The Eynez mine, which is not shut, is not very mechanized. Workers there used pneumatic drills and dynamite to extract the coal.
At a more modern mine nearby — run by Imbat — 1,600 out of 6,000 miners are refusing to work until safety is improved, Alp said.
The majority of workers at the Soma mines are contract workers, Alp said, who get paid half what permanent workers get and with fewer benefits.
Permanent workers at the Soma mines belong to the Maden-Is mine workers union, but many workers see it as a company union and forced its president to resign last week.
More workers are seeing that “they need a powerful union, a union that can stop production if conditions are unsafe,” Alp said.
Soma Holding has held the lease on the three mines — which are owned by the government’s Turkish Coal Enterprises — since 2005, when the ruling Justice and Development Party privatized production at mines around the country.
Lignite coal production nationwide increased tenfold between 2003 and 2012, according to Hurriyet Daily News. In 2012 the owner of Soma Holding boasted he reduced costs of extracting the coal from $130 a ton in 2005 to $23.80.
A 2010 report by the Chamber of Mining Engineers of Turkey warned about the dangers in the underground lignite mines and in mining throughout the country. “But the government never listened to us,” chamber spokesperson Ragip Varol, told the Militant. “The accident in Soma was not an ‘accident.’”
Varol noted that mine safety officials have the authority to close the mine if there are unsafe conditions. “But they are employed by the owner of the mines,” he said. “If they report an unsafe condition the owner may fire them.”
The Eynez mine had lots of “problems such as a terribly designed ventilation system, unsafe shaft design and operation, a lack of control mechanisms and improperly sealed shafts,” he said.
The Chamber of Mining Engineers has been fighting to change a number of mining regulations, including one that prevents contract workers from joining labor unions.
There are already laws, although not strict enough, dealing with job safety, Varol said. “But they are not applied in real life, because they cost the companies a lot of money.”
That’s why miners need to join “independent workers unions,” Varol said. “If they do not come together, nobody will give their rights to them.”
In the aftermath of the disaster, protests took place across the country, fueled by the open contempt Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan showed for the miners, which included a public statement after the fire where he declared that “death is the destiny of coal miners.” He also threatened and physically attacked protesting miners.
At a demonstration in the village of Kinik at the end of May to protest the lack of mine safety, miners told a reporter for al-Jazeera about their low pay, frequent injuries on the job and arbitrary firings at the Soma mines. Soma miner Ramazan Gursel argued that they should protest the working conditions, not the prime minister. But other miners disagreed chanting, “The murderer state will be held accountable for the Soma massacre.”
Meanwhile, another miner died on the job in the southern province of Kahramanmaras June 1.
Yasemin Aydinoglu in Elmira, New York, contributed to this article.
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