Yet another ‘accident’: the miners’ burden

By Eda Sevinin

In 2010, Turkey was ranked first in work-related deaths among European countries and third in the world. On November 17th 2016, just two weeks before World Miners’ Day, Turkey witnessed yet another mining calamity.

People wait at Soma after the disaster in 2014. Source: Mustafa Karaman, Wikimedia Commons

The so-called “accident” in a copper mine in Şirvan, Siirt, left sixteen miners buried under the wreckage. Rescue operations were extremely difficult due to rain and damp soil, and none of the miners could be rescued. On December 12, the body of the last miner was found and sixteen miners were reported dead.

Disasters like this are usually deemed simple work-related accidents by Turkish officials. 1,596 workers were killed in workplace “accidents” in a matter of ten months in 2016. The reasons behind these statistics are manifold: among them are lack of legal regulations assuring workers’ security, lack of control and repercussions for labour safety, massive and uncontrolled privatization allowing unchecked capital accumulation at the expense of working conditions, and regulations that hinder workers’ organization in labour unions.

The risks in the mining sector are no different than in any other, albeit more acute. One of the most physically demanding, labour-intensive and crowded sectors, mining necessitates a higher level of safety than in other sectors. However, such safety measures and precautions tend to be costly, though not impossible. This gives all the more reason for further legal intervention and regulation on the part of the state.

A precarious occupation

Historically, mining has been one of the industries in which the working class has been the most organized, an almost universal phenomenon from the UK to Chile. In the case of Turkey, the history of miners’ movements corresponds both to capitalist modernization during the late Ottoman period of the late 19th Century and the development of the working class.

Mining workers’ organization and strikes dates back to 1908 in Zonguldak. At the time, all men between the age of 13 to 50 were obligated to work in the mines, a requirement that endured in the region until the 1960s. During the 1960s and 70s, when labour movements were growing in number and intensity in Turkey, the miners’ movements became exemplary for the rest of the working class and other labour unions.

Despite its highly mobilized and unionized nature, the miners’ movement has never been able to fully prevent work-related deaths. Recent International Labour Organization (ILO) statistics reveal this. In 1983, 103 miners died as a result of firedamp explosions in Armutçuk. In 1992, in one of the biggest coalmines in the country (Zonguldak), 263 works died for the very same reason. 2014 marked one of the highest-fatality years for miners in Turkish history, with the murder of 301 miners in Soma and 18 miners in Ermenek.

The Siirt disaster is yet another incident to add to this list. Besides the sheer number of deaths that have occurred in this way, there are dozens of other miners’ deaths which may not be immediate and individual accidents in the mines. Various diseases, exposure to poisonous chemicals and other detrimental effects of working underground go largely unnoticed.

A short history of miners’ mobilization in Turkey

The era following the 1980 coup d’etat saw a dramatic increase in miner deaths. The neoliberalization of Turkey, coupled with the forceful dissolution of working class movements, trade unions and leftist movements, steered the economy firmly toward capital accumulation and private interests; safeguarding the lives and wellbeing of mine workers essentially stopped being a political issue. With 18,067 worker deaths since the AKP became the ruling party of the Turkish government in 2002, neoliberalization has been intensified by clientelist privatization policies.

Neoliberal policies started in the late 1970s and gained momentum in the 1980s, which saw the privatization of various business sectors, including the mining industry. While some of the state-owned mines were privatized, operations and management of other mines were transferred to private mining companies by way of subcontracting. Private ownership precipitated higher competition; profit-seeking in the private sector fundamentally changed the way mines operated. The pressure to reduce production cost paved the way for cut-offs in miners’ wages and reductions in workplace safety measures. The mines were left uncontrolled, and frequently uninspected by the Turkish state.

The Soma massacre became a stark testament to this phenomenon. What is more striking in the case of Soma is that the company that runs the mine (Soma Holding) was proved to have close relations to the current AKP government. It later turned out that the government bestows privilege on companies with political or ideological affinities to the party, which, in turn, prevents the adequate monitoring of the mines. Likewise, in Siirt, the company that owns and runs the copper mine is Ciner Holding, a corporate firm renowned for its close relations to the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In addition, labour unions have been rendered ineffective either because they have been co-opted by the state, becoming part of mine management structure, or because of restrictions on subcontracted workers forming organized labour unions or participating in existing unions. State-affiliated labour unions (which are known as “yellow unions”) took over the union activities and excluded previously organized workers. Therefore, labour union participation has become more of an obstacle for worker mobilization.

Today, of the approximately 190,000 miners working in the industry, only 20% of them are members of labour unions. Others work as subcontractors without any social security measures or right to pensions. The organization of miners into a union has also become more dangerous because union members are often targeted for redundancy, as was the case following protests against the Soma mining disaster.

The recurrence of mining disasters is undoubtedly becoming more frequent at a time when miners are left without alternative sources of income, especially in the rural areas. Agriculture and other sources of income have either been appropriated by the state or by the privatization of land for mining activities. Local populations are often left with two options: mining or unemployment.

Any other self-sustaining economic activity such as small-scale farming has become impossible for the local community because of the harmful environmental effects of mining. Either agricultural lands are appropriated by the mining industry or the fertile soil and natural water resources instrumental to agricultural production are contaminated because of heavy mining activity underground. Thus people are rendered dependent on the mines.

“Fate” or sheer neglect?

The general attitude of state officials and government authorities has undoubtedly not improved circumstances. The very regulators who have the responsibility to take steps to improve and protect worker safety and livelihood have either belittled miners’ deaths, criticised and punished miners for their colleagues’ fatalities or legitimized the deaths with religious discourse.

“Mining is destined to death” and “dying is in the disposition of the mining industry” are just two of the phrases that politicians and government authorities have used after each massacre. Following the Siirt mining disaster in November 2016, Berat Albayrak, Minister of Energy and Natural Resources said: “This wreckage is a natural disaster; this is how Allah willed, there is nothing we can do here.” This attitude has terrible consequences: it legitimizes the lack of workplace security with religious references and also denies responsibility for human-made, and thus preventable, disasters. Moreover, evoking religious references as the cause of disasters prevents workers from rising up against punitive workplace regulations by framing these disasters as the “will of Allah”.

This drive for capital accumulation which undeniably causes the deaths of many mining workers is repeatedly veiled behind metaphysical convictions about religious faith and destiny. Safety measures vital for avoiding such disasters are then trivialized and deemed unnecessary. The normalization of workplace deaths is a consequence of the state-led policies, and not simply the nature of the work. Neither Soma, Ermenek nor Siirt was destined to happen; safety regulation has effectively reduced mining fatalities in other countries, and Turkey should be no different. However, belittling the deaths and also suppressing potential opposition and mobilization by way of firing workers or threatening them with firing are big obstacles for miners who are working for further measures to ensure workplace security from both the private owners and government regulators.

Miners who have happened to survive these massacres were in some cases fired and denied their labour rights such as termination indemnity. This happened after the Soma Massacre in 2014 where well above 2,800 miners were fired without any such rights recognized. All these fatalities and dismissals are either justified or rendered invisible since the workers’ right to organise in unions is denied. The latest news from Siirt shows that the labour union, together with the company administration, threatens the workers with firing them or closing the mine altogether. This would lead to further unemployment in the region. In such an environment, where the labour unions become the representatives of the capital instead of labour, workers are left alone to struggle with these calamities. Not only is their power to bargain with employers taken away but also their lives are reduced to statistics, to “victims of destiny.”

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