Miners paid for the government’s ignorance with their lives
Turkey is experiencing one of its largest ever mine disasters.
As this piece was being written in the evening hours of May 14, the death toll of the Soma coal mine disaster of May 13 had been announced by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan as 245. This was less than the Kozlu mine blast of 1992, in which 263 miners lost their lives, but Erdoğan added that there were an “estimated” 120 more trapped in the pit.
Turkey is in deep grief. The country is now in a three-day official mourning period. Flags are at half-mast, PM Erdoğan has cancelled his trip to Albania, President Abdullah Gül has cancelled his trip to China.
Most of the deaths in Soma, a town in the west of Turkey, were from carbon monoxide poisoning; reportedly because of an explosion in a transformer panel used for the elevator systems, after which a fire broke out.
A reporter asked Erdoğan whether he thought any government agency, such as the Energy Ministry or Labor Ministry, could be responsible for a possible safety fault. Erdoğan immediately slammed the reporter for not being aware of the “nature of this profession,” implying the risks of it. He then gave examples of worse accidents from 19th century Britain, as well as China and India of the 1970s. He added that a March 2014 inspection of the pit by the Labor Ministry had found no faults.
Following the press conference, Erdoğan was protested with boos and whistles on the streets of Soma.
Labor Minister Faruk Çelik was not in Soma until the late afternoon. Energy Minister Taner Yılmaz was there from the evening of May 13 onward.
No, none of them has resigned so far.
Yes, it was Yıldız who visited the Soma mine nine months ago, praising the quality of the safety measures and levels of technology, produced in Turkey, in the pits of Soma Mining, which is owned by Alp Gürkan. In a 2012 interview, Gürkan said the company had managed to lower the cost of coal to $24 per ton from the pre-privatization $130, simply by manufacturing the electric transformers themselves instead of importing them. This was among other measures, such as hiring subcontractors for hard work with lower salaries than the workers organized by the trade union, Maden-İş.
And yes, it was PM Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) that rejected a demand for a parliamentary investigation regarding safety in the Soma mines just two weeks ago, on April 29.
It was the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) that had submitted the proposal. Its deputy for Manisa (the province where Soma is located), Özgür Özel, said on the parliamentary floor that there were reports of frequent mine accidents with death tolls that might be a concern and serve as warning. Parliament should have a look at the matter in order to implement additional measures, he added.
The answer came from an AK Parti MP, again from Manisa, Muzaffer Yurttaş, who said the mines were safer than the mines in many countries around the world (despite the fact that Turkey is one of the worst when it comes to coal mine accidents). The people had trust in the AK Parti, as the votes in the last elections showed, and “God willing” nothing would happen, “not even a nose bleed.” (Speaking of votes, bags of coal – and macaroni – distributed to poor people has become a symbol of how the AK Parti campaigns during elections.)
After this speech, the CHP motion was rejected with the AK Parti’s votes. Has anyone thought of resigning? Has anyone assumed responsibility for at least 238 miners’ lives that have been lost so far? Not in sight.
The government and the ruling party in Parliament ignored the warnings about the Soma mines, but the miners paid the price with their lives.