‘Tents of death’ underlie the construction boom

‘Tents of death’ underlie the construction boom

The horrific deaths of 11 construction workers at an Istanbul shopping mall construction site last Sunday add another entry into a growing list of fatal workplace accidents in Turkey. The workers apparently died because it was too costly to build prefabricated dwellings near the site: In an effort to keep warm in tents, they were using electricity heaters, which are thought to be the reason behind the fatal fire. 

As the charred remains of the 11 bodies are laid to rest, one remembers other stories, such as the Jan. 31, 2008, blast in an unlicensed fireworks workshop in Istanbul’s Davutpaşa neighborhood. Twenty-one people died there. 

During the Sept. 9, 2009, floods that took Turkey’s biggest city hostage, a factory shuttle turned into a grave for eight female workers who drowned because their part of the vehicle had no window – as they were carried to work like cattle, the workers were unable to see the coming flood.
And that takes us to a Dec. 29, 2005, factory fire in Bursa, in which five female workers burned to death because the employer had locked the doors of the building. Like two of the construction workers who burnt to death last Sunday, these female workers were insured only after death.

Then there’s the “Feb. 3, 2011, explosions” in Ankara: In two workplace blasts, 17 workers died and scores were wounded. Both companies in question lacked the necessary permission and documents to operate.
Careful readers would also remember last month’s appalling dam explosion. On Feb. 24, a bridge dam in Kozan, southern Turkey, exploded and 10 workers disappeared under raging waters. Six of the bodies have yet to be found.

The “routine” workplace deaths at Istanbul’s Tuzla shipyards hit the brakes only because of the global crisis: As of 2010, the deaths numbered 134, and we haven’t heard of new dreadful stories because the shipyards have had to lay off tens of thousands of employees. So, if deaths accelerate once again, one can infer that business is recovering for shipyard owners – many of whom are lawmakers from this or that political party, by the way. 

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a construction sector insider pointed toward the subcontracting system as a main culprit in this latest disaster. “The subcontractor attempts to solve the lodging issue in the cheapest way possible,” he told me yesterday. “One prefabricated container can shelter maybe eight workers, while a tent can shelter 50 workers. At the same cost.” 

As hundreds of workers must work simultaneously in processes such as jacketing, companies prefer tents, and they are perfectly aware of the risk. The proof is out there: even after this latest carnage, thousands have been spending their “non-working time” in similar tents adjacent to similar construction sites across Istanbul. 

“Everything depends on speed in such projects,” said my source. “Thus, tents are erected at the nearest location to the site. In this system, the notion of shift is also eliminated. Many of these “pieceworkers” get paid according to how many square meters they’ve finished. Especially during summers, one can see shifts that start at 7 a.m. and end at 9 p.m.”

No wonder Turkey ranks number one in Europe in terms of workplace fatalities – on average, three workers die and five are crippled every day. In 2010, one-third of the 1,444 workers who died in such incidents were construction workers. 

So, welcome to the ugly truth that fuels Turkey’s real estate boom!

worker safety,