Inspections that aren’t really inspections
By Silke Vanrompay
On the 13th of May 2014 a generator exploded in the coal mine in Soma, in the West-Turkish Manisa, what resulted in a power breakdown, a heavy fire and the deadliest mine disaster in the history of the country. Eventually, it would kill 301 miners. Almost half a year later, on the 28th October 2014, eighteen workers got buried after the collapse of a mine in Ermenek, South-Turkey. The mine has been filled with thousands of litres of water. Three days later, on the 1st of November, two mineworkers lost their lives in a mine in the Bartin province. The question of the security situation in the Turkish mines has risen again and the promises that the Erdogan government made in May have been dusted off and evaluated.
The mine of Ermenek, that collapsed last week after a huge amount of water had flown in the shaft, has been closed in June due to security problems. After these have been resolved in the summer, the mine opened again in September, according to the Turkish Minister of Energy Yildiz.  The mine of Bartin too, was disapproved and closed after tests in September. In 2010 the Turkish Mining Engineers Chamber presented a report about the mine in Soma, which would be one of the most dangerous mines in the country due to lacking safety measures.  Still, the mine could stay open… According to statistics of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) 100 miners are killed in the Turkish mines each year, the highest amount in the investigated European countries. How can workers, who risk their lives each day in performing their dangerous job, been abandoned to their faith?
Anger and corruption
After the mining disaster in Soma a furious Turkish crowd turned on the government, which would manage safety proscriptions in the mines too lax. The direction of the mine was accused of negligence, as just after the disaster Hürriyet and other Turkish newspapers reported that sensors in the mine had indicated two days before the catastrophe that there was a too high concentration of deadly gases.  According to the 24-year old Erdbal Bicak, one of the survivors of the disaster, the mining company indeed bears blame for the calamity. He said that the mines aren’t controlled profound enough. “Only the elevated locations of the mine are controlled and that’s the only place that’s cleaned up. The inspectors don’t know about the miserable situations deeper into the ground. Furthermore they are often bribed.” Finally he proclaims that the mine hadn’t been inspected for six months.  Moreover, another mine worker, Veli Yilmaz, states that the controls are announced weeks in advance, in which way the bosses have the time to bring everything in to order. “Suddenly we had to clean everything, close the dangerous shafts and hide the forbidden machines”, he declares. 
Arzu Cerkezoglu, secretary-general of the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade-Unions in Turkey (DISK) who represents the workers of Soma, sees the safety problems in the Turkish mines as a result of the privatizations. These started in 1980 because of the government’s inability to manage the mines in an effective way. “Most of the mines are now in the hands of private companies who hire auditors, engineers and safety staff by themselves. When they determine that there are indeed risks, little is done, because they work directly for the exploiter of the mine. These practices often occur in combination with the state of mind of high production at low cost. That causes terrible conditions for the workers”, she continues.  Ozgur Gurbuz, a Turkish energy-expert, uses hard figures. “Recent statistics of the trade-unions show since the privatizations that the amount of accidents in the mine has risen with 40 percent”. 
Due to the privatizations, the decisions of the bosses get more decisive. In that way Alp Gürkan, the owner of the mine disaster in Soma, decided not to import expensive equipment from abroad, but to use cheaper, less solid Turkish parts for the transformers. It’s an example of the desire for profit getting more important than the security of the miners.  According to Bayram Demir, who worked in the disaster-mine, the Soma Holding went beyond that. They neglected the mine. Sanitary, transport or hygiene in the changing-rooms were no longer worth the investment. The situation for the workers deteriorated and the risks kept growing. 
During the manifestations after the mine disaster in May, these practices were also mentioned. Protestors criticized the privatization of the mines, which were formerly in the hands of the government. According to them, the combination of the privatization and the excellent relation between the mine owners and the officials implies a rising risk for the miners and an increase of the amount of dead in the mines. 
Research of Yucel Demiral and Alpaslan Ertuk of the University of Izmir also indicates other factors that have an influence on the security in the mines. The control of the mines falls within the competence of different actors and the lack of coordination and consultation between them leads to bad an ineffective supervision. They also point to the lack of education and the low level of organisation among Turkish miners as a contributing factor to unsafe working conditions. 
Isn’t there anybody who cares about the harrowing situations under the Turkish ground? There is. Özgur Özel, member of the parliament of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), submitted a motion in the Turkish parliament on the 23th of October 2013, in which he asked for a profound investigation of the risks for mineworkers. However, everybody told Özel that his proposal had no chance of being adopted, since the owner of the mine in Soma, Alp Gürkan, was a family member of the local AKP-mayor. When after months, his proposal was finally processed on the 29th of April, it was indeed promptly rejected. 
After all, the mine disaster in Soma had some political repercussions. A few politicians supported the furious crowd that has been claiming that the disaster was due to negligence. A parliamentary committee of inquiry was established and twenty-five people were detained and accused of involuntary manslaughter. Their trial is currently in action. Furthermore, a legislative proposal for the improvement of the working situation in the Turkish mines has been submitted. The working week would be shortened until 30 hours, instead of 48, the salaries would be adjusted upwards and the retirement age would be lowered with five years, until 50 years. On top, the mine companies have to strengthen their safety measures, like the obligatory presence of safety rooms and gas masks.  Tiny lessons are thus drawn from the disaster and tentative steps towards improvement are taken.
Still, Turkey hasn’t yet ratified the ILO Safety and Health in Mines Convention from 1995 (No 176), despite promises made after de disaster, just as other former treaties to improve the situations in the mines. The ILO emphasises that Convention 176 is important for the improvement of the safety and health situation and that it minimizes the risk at death, injuries and illness. The Convention should serve as a base for consultations between the government and the most representative organizations of employers and workers, concerned to formulate, carry out and periodically review a coherent policy on safety and health in mines. Furthermore the Convention also sets out obligations concerning inspections, accident reporting and investigation, rescue, appropriate first aid, training, rights and duties of the miners and much more.
The ILO thus calls for a quick recognition and compliance of Convention 176. But after all, the UN-organization sees a prudent progress. Earlier this year Turkey accepted Convention 187, of 2006, that provides a useful framework for national efforts to improve the occupational health and safety conditions (OSH). For the ILO, this is a further indication of the commitment by the Government of Turkey to enhance its national capacity and focus on OSH in order to ensure an effective and nation-wide implementation of the new and revised legislative framework.
Arzu Cerkezoglu too is positive. She believes that “the resistance of the workers will lead to a change in the living conditions and the collective agreements”.  In that case, disasters as the one in Soma will soon become a thing of the past.