By Merve Kaynak
Dozens of miners from Turkey’s Zonguldak province have staged a hunger strike and protest, refusing to leave the mine after having their salary withheld from them for four months.
The strike ended prematurely on Friday after escalating dangerously when some workers conducted a controlled explosion in order to block off the entrance of the mine. Additionally, some miners developed health problems and were hospitalized, forcing them to end their strike.
Miners in the province of Karaman, which is also mine reserve, staged their own strike a few days earlier, protesting the fact that they had not received a salary for five months.
This is not the first strike of its kind and it will likely not to be the last due to the seeming negligence of the Turkish government concerning workers’ rights.
The mining industry has revealed itself as an often dangerous and unjust sector in Turkey. The Soma incident is the most well-known mining disaster, where 301 miners lost their lives.
This event is recorded as the most disastrous mining disaster in the history of the Turkish Republic, resulting in the largest number of casualties.
Perhaps the most serious issue surrounding the Soma disaster was that just a few weeks prior the accident, MPs from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) voted against a proposal in parliament raised by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) regarding security regulations in the mining industry. If the proposal had been accepted by the MPs, dangerous conditions in the mines could have been improved and more effective safety regulations would be in place.
The recent strikes in Zonguldak reveal that the AKP government remains unaccountable and indifferent to workers’ lives and rights, and that these issues are yet to be resolved.
Following the Soma disaster, the rights of subcontractor workers, whose numbers have tripled since the AKP’s rise to power, came to the forefront of the agenda. One of the biggest concerns regarding the status of subcontractor workers is that they have not been given fundamental rights such as “annual leave rights, severance pay, and rights in the event of injury or health problems.”
Besides the basic rights of the workers being neglected, the subcontractor labor system results in low-costs for companies, who are able to avoid the “Occupational Health and Safety” regulations for greater profit. Such legal loopholes have resulted in an increased occurrence of occupational accidents due to imprudence of the employers over their workers. Both private and state companies benefit from the subcontractor labor system by avoiding standards and occupational requirements.
According to a report by the Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK), the mines and quarries feature a greater number of occupational accidents in comparison to other sectors. In addition, the mining reserves in Zonguldak and Manisa are known for their often tragic occupational hazards.
In addition to demanding their salaries due to them, the miners also went on to assert that “our sole demand is not four or five months salary, we want labor job protection.”
The workers stated that “we want to work, we are worried about unemployment. We are devoted and determined, we will continue until our employment is protected. We do not want to engage in talks anymore, now we are concerned with taking action.”
These workers face the very real threat of sudden unemployment, while their most basics rights and claims are ignored by their employers and the state.
The hunger strike organized by the Zonguldak workers lasted for 11 days, and ended after an agreement was reached between the miners and the provincial police. While only 17 of the workers received their salaries, the representative of the protesting workers Serkan Demir stated that “we received our salaries in entirety, we now leave the issue of compensation to the legislative process. We gained by resisting.”
The miners still lack fundamental rights such as severance pay and other basic rights however. An added political dimension of the incident is that trustees were appointed to the mining company, which allegedly belonged to the Gülenist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), recently added to the list of terror groups by the President Erdoğan.
The question that remains is did the protest solve all the problems regarding the rights of workers? They received their salaries, but what about guaranteed labor protection? The government needs to intervene to reform the subcontracted workers system, ensuring that the Occupational Health and Safety regulations are met by all companies working in the mining sector.
As for the miners, they have little choice but to keep fighting for their rights and lives. This is likely to be an uphill struggle as they still have yet to even secure fundamental rights such as regularly receiving a salary and labor-job protection.