Is worker safety a luxury in Turkey?

Ordinary workers are paying the price for Turkey’s ‘Think Big’ developmentalist motto.

The Soma mine explosion has left at least 282 dead [EPA]

As I was writing this sad account, rescuers pulled more dead and injured from the Turkish coal mine near Turkey’s Aegean coast. More than two days after a deadly explosion, the death toll now stands at 282 in what most agree is Turkey’s worst mining disaster in decades.

At least 120 more are still believed to be trapped in the 2 kilometre-deep mine in Soma, a town northeast of the coastal city of Izmir. The explosion, which triggered a fire, occurred shortly after 3pm on May 13 as workers were preparing for a shift change. This is also why the number of injured is so high.

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma at the time. Some 400 miners have been rescued so far.

First, let’s get a little background on this mine. Since the privatisation of the coal mines under the present Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, the Soma coal mine was bought by Soma Holding. The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) had recently been asking for a parliamentary inquiry on the working conditions and the technical facilities at coal mines in Soma. The inquiry was rejected by the ruling majority.

In fast developing countries like Turkey, work safety is something of a luxury. In recent years, workplace accidents that social activists now dub ‘work assassinations’ have increased noticeably.

In September 2012, CEO of Soma Holding Alp Gurkan told the daily Hurriyet newspaper, that the company had managed to reduce production costs from $130 to about $24 per tonne since the privatisation. Apparently, that was the cost of workers’ safety.

When government officials headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan went to Soma after the accident, they were systematically booed by the residents. The prime minister himself had to flee the angry crowd by taking refuge in a shopping centre.

Spontaneous protests

Elsewhere in Turkey, several spontaneous protests have taken place in support of the miners and their families. Bearing in mind the upcoming anniversary of last year’s Gezi Park protests in Istanbul on May 28, the prevailing public discontent may have dire consequences for the government.

In fast developing countries like Turkey, work safety is something of a luxury. In recent years, workplace accidents that social activists now dub “work assassinations” have increased noticeably. According to a specialised “Worker’s Health and Work Safety Assembly“, the toll for fatal work accidents in 2012 was 878 and in 2013 – 1,235 deaths; during the first four months of 2014, there were 396 deaths.

There is no record of injuries resulting in handicaps due to accidents. Traffic accidents on the way to the workplace are not included in these statistics either. Despite this appalling record, the Turkish “Working Place Safety and Security Law” was enacted only in August 2012 – albeit, it exempts all companies employing less than 50 workers.

As a result, Turkey is on the black list of the International Labor Office (ILO) and relations with the international organisation are highly tense. According to ILO, Turkey has the worst record in Europe and ranks third in the world in deadly accidents as per the size of its population. Moreover, Turkey is not party to the ILO’s Convention on Safety and Health in Mines.

The negotiation chapter on Social Policy with the European Union is also blocked due to the Turkish government’s unwillingness to implement modern work legislation, especially regarding workers’ union rights.

Recently, the ruling AKP’s powerful boss, Erdogan, was overheard telling the head of the South Korean company building the third Bosphorus bridge, at the stone laying ceremony: “Quickly, quickly!”

Turkey’s construction extravaganza is the government’s key asset for populism and political benefits. Its grand designs please the man on the street.

Slogans like “You are Turkey, Think Big”, perfectly but also tragically summarise this state of mind. The government and the public at large seem to be proud of roads, bridges, social housings, airports, shopping malls and artificial cities as proof of Turkey’s newfound grandeur.

The Turkish “developmentalist” bonanza has indeed come at a huge price. The air, soil, sea, city, culture and human beings – which are all supposedly free of charge – are paying the price of this obsession, like today in Soma.

Cengiz Aktar is Senior Scholar at Istanbul Policy Center. As a former director at the United Nations where he spent 22 years of his professional life, Aktar is one of the leading advocates of Turkey’s integration into the EU.