Death, grief and anger
I received the news of the horrific mine accident in Soma, western Turkey, when I was in Washington, D.C., for a talk. Like millions of fellow Turks, I was glued to the Internet, especially Twitter, to see what was going on. And like millions of fellow Turks, I felt not only grief for the nearly 300 workers who lost their lives deep underground; I also felt anger at the authorities who not only haven’t enforced the precautions to avert such disasters, but who have also showed a stunningly self-righteous reaction to what happened.
Why are the authorities to blame? This was, after all, a private mine operated by a private company. That indeed is the case, and the technical evaluations of how the fire that triggered the disaster is yet to come. But it is already a visible fact that Turkey is one of the world’s worst countries when it comes to safety measures at work, and the current government has not done enough to improve the conditions.
In fact, “worker deaths” has been a recurrent theme in Turkish politics since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power and hastened Turkey’s industrial progress. It was often the opposition, especially the left-wing People’s Republican Party (CHP) and liberal-left intellectuals, who questioned the government on this issue. The government’s response has generally been to say that there is nothing to worry, and it is the nature of these manual jobs that cause some risks. In 2010, after another mine accident, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan controversially said that it was “in the fate of this profession” to die in accidents.
The most shocking and annoying example of the government’s insensitivity to the issue came just last month, when a member of the parliament from the main opposition CHP gave a petition to the Parliament for parliamentary research on workers deaths in Soma, the very place that last Tuesday’s horrific accident took place. The two other parties in the parliament, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), also supported the motion, displaying a rare example of consensus. But, alas, the AKP group in the Parliament rejected the motion, and the investigation never began. A famous deputy of the AKP, Şamil Tayyar, even said on TV that the CHP’s suggested motion was about “trivia.”
With such a background, one would expect the government to be a bit apologetic and self-critical in the wake of the disaster in Soma. When the prime minister spoke after the tragedy, though, he repeated his old line that such accidents are sad but normal occurrences. He referred to similar mine tragedies that took place in England in the late 19th century, and in the United States in the early 20th century, provoking the question of what he has done regarding the standards of the 21st century. Meanwhile, one of this advisers, Yusuf Yerkel, was caught by cameras while kicking a protestor in Soma. Mr. Yerkel later apologized, adding that the protestor was guilty of “insulting” him.
To be fair, the underlying problem that caused the Soma disaster is not directly the government. It is Turkey’s poor standards of job safety, which have been hidden behind the eye-catching works of construction and industrial growth. But to improve those standards, we need political will. And for that political will, we need modest and reasonable governments which will not consider every criticism as an attack and every opposition as a conspiracy.