Carrying signs that read, “It wasn’t an accident, it was murder,” 1,500 people on May 16 gathered in Soma, the site of Turkey’s worst mine disaster to protest the lack of safety at the mine where an explosion killed 301 miners.
The demonstrators were dispersed by the police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets and blasted demonstrators with water cannons .
The mine, located in the heart of Turkey’s coal mining region, is operated by Soma Holding, a private company. Turkish unions say that safety in the mines like the one at Soma has deteriorated badly since the mines were privatized and that the company’s disregard for safety caused the explosion and resulting deaths.
“Those who keep up with privatization. . . policies, (that) threaten workers’ lives to reduce costs. . . are the culprits of the Soma massacre and they must be held accountable,” said KESK, the union of public sector workers, on its website.
“After privatization of the mines many years ago, so many occupational accidents have erupted,” said Kivanc Eliacik, director of international relations for DISK, Turkey’s largest trade union federation.
The government at first contended that the mines were safe and accidents like the one at Soma were inevitable because mining is inherently dangerous work.
But after five days of intense public demonstrations, the government on May 18 arrested and charged three Soma Holding officials with negligence.
The explosion might have been prevented had the government paid attention to mounting evidence that the company was ignoring mine safety.
The Guardian reports that a 2010 report by the Turkish Chamber of Architects and Engineers cited problems with the mine’s ventilation systems, pre-warning mechanisms, and wall supports. The problems, said the report, if not fixed could lead to a disaster.
Two weeks before the explosion occurred the Republican People’s Party, the country’s main opposition party, presented evidence during a debate in parliament showing that mine safety at Soma was deficient.
The opposition introduced a resolution calling for the government to increase its mine safety inspections at Soma. During debate on the resolution Erkan Akcay, a member of parliament , said that during 2013 there were 5,000 industrial accidents in Soma, and 90 percent of those accidents took place in the mines.
Members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP, its Turkish acronym), Turkey’s ruling party, however, said that mine safety in Soma was excellent and no additional inspections were needed. AKP members voted to oppose the resolution, and it was killed.
After the explosion, a preliminary investigation into the causes took place. According to the Associated Press, the investigation found that the mine’s support beams were made of wood not metal and that there were too few carbon monoxide sensors in the mine.
One safety feature, rescue chambers, which are common in US and European mines, could have reduced the number of deaths, but Bloomberg News reports that the Soma mine didn’t have any.
When asked why, a Soma Holding spokesperson told Bloomberg that the government didn’t require them.
DISK spokesperson Eliacik said that Soma Holding has slashed production costs at the expense of worker safety. Prior to privatization, production costs at the Soma mines were between US$ 130 to US$140 per ton. Since Soma Holdings has taken over operation of the mines, production costs have dropped to US$23.80 per ton.
Mines aren’t the only workplaces in Turkey where safety is lax. The United Nations International Labor Organization reports that Turkey has the third highest rate of on-the-job worker deaths in the world.
“Workers die an average of 8.5 times more in Turkey than in the European Union,” said Akcay. “There were 880,000 occupational accidents between 2002 and 2013, and 13,442 were killed in these accidents.”
In 2013, 1,235 Turkish workers were killed on the job, and while the AKP has been in power, 219 occupational accidents take place every day in Turkey.
After the Soma explosion, the government shrugged off the catastrophe.
During a press conference 24 hours after the explosion, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that mine disasters like the one at Soma were not unusual because mining is very dangerous work and that the tragedy should not be blown out of proportion.
Shortly after Prime Minister Erdogan’s remarks, unions called for demonstrations and strikes to protest the lack of occupational safety in the mines and on other jobs throughout the country.
On May 15, demonstrations took place in Ankara, Istanbul, and Soma. They were broken up by the police.
At the Istanbul Technical University, students occupied administration offices and demanded that the university cut its ties with Soma Holding. A university official met with the students and said that the university would do so.
On Saturday May 17 tensions remained high in Soma after the police broke up the demonstration the day before. Reuters reports that police in riot gear were patrolling the streets and had set up check points. The town was in virtual lockdown and 36 people had been arrested.
On May 18, the Associated Press reports that the government began to take action against Soma Holding. It detained and questioned 25 Soma Holding officials. As a result, the government charged the mine’s operation manager Akin Celik and two others with negligence. Six of the 25 were released, and the government is deciding whether to charge the other 16.