14 May 2014

Protests in Turkey as more than 245 die in mine explosion

At least 245 people are killed and 80 injured in a mining accident. As rescue efforts continue, the Turkish government is facing protests over its failure to improve mine safety.

Rescue workers are still retrieving bodies from the mine in Soma, 75 miles from the Aegean coastal city of Izmir. A further 120 people are believed to be trapped underground, although the company that owns the mine, Soma Komur Isletmeleri, said nearly 450 miners have been rescued.

The Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who cancelled a visit to Albania to visit the area, declared three days of national mourning but when he visited the area he was greeted by an angry crowd, who booed him, shouting for the government to resign and calling him a killer.

At one point, furious people surrounded his car, kicking and hitting it:

Video from the scene also showed the police detaining some of those involved in the protest.

Speaking at a press conference following his visit to the mine, Prime Minister Erdogan appeared defensive when challenged on safety procedures, saying “I went back in British history. In 1866, 361 miners died in Britain.. Take America with all of its technology and everything.. In 1907, 361 [miners died there]. These are usual things.” He pledged an investigation, but insisted the mine was “one of the safest in Turkey.”

Electrical fault

The mine was hit by an explosion which triggered a fire on Tuesday afternoon. The fire is still burning underground, which is hampering the rescue operation.

Rescue pumped oxygen into the mine to try to keep those trapped alive, as thousands of family members and co-workers gathered outside the town’s hospital. Many of the dead suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, but Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told journalists that he feared hopes of rescuing anyone else alive were diminishing and the accident could becoming the deadliest ever in Turkey.

At the time of the blast, which is believed to have been caused by an electrical fault, 787 workers were at the mine. The explosion took place during a shift change, making it difficult to assess exactly how many miners are still trapped.

It is intolerable that mine workers in Turkey are denied their basic human right to work in an environment that guarantees their safety IndustriALL global union

Paramilitary police are guarding the entrance to the mine to keep distressed relatives at a safe distance, while the authorities scrambled to get together teams of psychiatrists to counsel bereaved relatives. Meanwhile locals began to dig lines of graves for the imminent funerals.

Public protests

There were calls on social media for protests at the Istanbul headquarters of mine owner Soma Komur Isletmeleri. Journalist Ariane Bonzon tweeted an image of several people lying down in the Istanbul metro in protest at the deaths.

Police officers were stationed at the company’s Istambul offices where a public protest took place outside.

The English-language Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported that some 800 students had gathered on the campus of the Middle Eastern Technical Univesrity in Ankara to march to the Energy Ministry in protest at the disaster, but were blocked by police.

Riot police detain a protester in Ankara (Reuters)

Riot police detain a protester in Ankara

Several unions have called for a three minutes’ silence at 9am on 15 May, and various strikes have been announced.

Poor safety record

In 2012, the International Labour Organisation ranked Turkey third worst in the world for worker deaths. But the Turkish government said officials had carried out regular inspections at the mine, most recently in March, and no irregularities were detected.

The IndustrialALL global union, whose affiliate union Maden-Is represents miners at the Soma pit, called on the government to act to improve safety by ratifiying and implementing the International Labour Organisation’s convention 176 on Safety and Health in Mines: “We once again call upon the political authorities to take the lives of mineworkers seriously and to place it above profit.”

The union said the situation “is made all the more tragic by the seemingly uncaring attitude of the government and mining companies” adding: “It is intolerable that mine workers in Turkey are denied their basic human rights to work in an environment that guarantees their safety, and that instead they are expected to go to work and die.”

Investigation blocked

Two weeks ago a parliamentary motion from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) calling for an investigation of work-related accidents at coal mines in Soma, was rejected, with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) voting against it.

During a parliamentary session on 29 April, MHP deputy Erkan Akcay said: “in 2013 5,000 occupational accidents took place in Soma district. Ninety per cent of these accidents took place in mines.

“Burn injures share a considerable number of all mine injuries. However, hospitals in Soma lack the necessary burns units, and time is wasted in the road in transferring such injured workers to nearby hospitals.”

However during the same debate, deputy Muzaffer Yurttas of the ruling AKP party said the mines in Soma were the safest in the country and that mine companies were taking all necessary measures.

According to IndustriALL, official records show that over 860 miners have died in the last 30 years in Turkey.

Turkish mining fatalities in past 30 years:
7 March 1983 - 103 deaths at Armutcuk
10 April 1983 - 10 deaths in Kozlu
31 January 1987 - 8 deaths in Kozlu
31 January 1990 - 5 deaths in Amasra
7 February 1990 - 68 deaths in Yeni Celtik
3 March 1992 - 263 deaths in Kozlu
26 March 1995 - 37 deaths in Sorgun
22 November 2003 - 10 deaths in Ermenek
8 September 2004 - 19 deaths in Kure
2 June 2006 - 17 deaths in Dursunbey
10 December 2009 - 19 deaths in Mustafakemalpasa
17 May 2010 - 30 deaths in Zonguldak
8 January 2013 - 8 deaths in Kozlu
13 May 2014 - 245 deaths (so far) in Soma
source: IndustriALL global union