How to punish those responsible for the Soma disaster

How to punish those responsible for the Soma disaster

The mine disaster in Soma has reminded us of the fact that Turkey is worst in Europe and third-worst in the world for workers’ deaths. It has lost more than 3,000 workers since its first mine accident 73 years ago. And the Soma disaster is its worst ever. Let’s have a look at how other countries punish those responsible for such disasters.

China, which draws 70 percent of its energy from coal and has about 7 million coal miners, has been able to greatly reduce its mining deaths. It has now achieved its lowest rate in 60 years by increasing its legal enforcement. Closing mines, imposing severe penalties on those responsible – including mine owners – unseating them, and holding the local and regional leaders of the Communist Party accountable for the accidents are some of them.

A mine disaster in 2007 in Shanxi province that killed 105 miners revealed this enforcement. Some 78 people who held some responsibility for the accident were sentenced to severe imprisonment. The owner of the mine and its legal representative were sentenced to life in prison. The mayor was handed a 14-year prison sentence. The mine was fined 185.2 million yuan ($29.7 million) and closed.

Another mine disaster in the same province in 2008 killed 35 people. Some 113 people were held responsible for the accident, and 26 of them, including the head of the mine and the legal representative of the company, were sentenced to prison. The company was fined a great amount and ordered to close.

The penalties in the United States are also harsh. Laws imposed in 1969 have increased the severity of punishments for illegality in mines. Any breach of a standard specified in the law risking life is subject to a $250,000 fine and six months’ imprisonment. Fraudulent representation and similar transgressions are punishable by six months in jail.

The Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which occurred in West Virginia in 2010, killing 29 mine workers, is an example. The families were paid $1.5 million each (in total $209 million). The mine was closed and its owner was sentenced to five years in prison.

Canada has enforced harsher penalties. In the wake of the Westray mine disaster in 1992 that killed 26 miners, the government closed the mine and increased the severity of the legal consequences.

Accordingly, mine owners are subject to life imprisonment. South Africa has enforced the same laws.
Australia has similar legal enforcement. For example in Queensland, in the event there is any breach of the standards or any injury, the mine company is subject to a $3 million fine and its owners five years’ imprisonment. 

The latest example was the San Jose mine disaster in the Atacama Desert, Chile, in 2010. Thirty-three miners were trapped underground for more than two months but were returned to the surface after a successful rescue. The trial is still continuing. Then-President Sebastian Pinera fired the top officials at Chile’s mining regulatory agency. Some 18 mines in the country were shut down and a further 300 were put under threat of possible closure. The mine is still closed.

All of my sources, including mineworkers’ unions in Turkey, the International Labour Organization (ILO) based in Geneva and IndustriALL, which is a global workers’ union, have underlined the importance of punishments. It is impossible to bring back those lost back to life.

Two things are possible however: Bringing those responsible to account and preventing future losses.