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The Tragedy of the Soma Mine Workers

At this point, the death toll in the Soma mining accident has already reached 245, with reports of another 100 workers remaining in the mine, yet unreached.

One of the greatest work-crimes in mining industry occurred in Soma, a little mining village in Western Turkey. At noon-time on Tuesday, May 13, according to witnesses, an electrical fault triggered a transformer to explode causing a large fire in the mine, releasing carbon monoxide and gaseous fumes. (The official cause of the “accident” was still unknown, at this writing, after nearly 30 hours.) Around 800 miners were trapped 2 km underground and 4 km from the exit. At this point, the death toll has already reached 245, with reports of another 100 workers remaining in the mine, yet unreached.

Turkey has possibly the worst safety record in terms of mining accidents and explosions in Europe and the third worst in the world. Since the right-wing Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed power in 2002, and up to 2011, a 40% increase in work-related accidents has been reported. The death toll from these accidents reached more than 11,000.

Many analysts agree that what lies behind these tragic events is the unregulated and poorly supervised attempts of a corrupt ruling government to push through hasty privatizations and a forced informalization of labour. The Soma mine itself was privatized in 2005. In the heyday of an anti-public sector campaign, the new owners of the plant proudly declared a decline in production costs from the US$120-130 range under the public ownership of State Coal Inc. (TTK) to US$23.80. It was not very long before it became clear that what actually facilitated this ‘miraculous market success’ was the determined evasion of safety standards. On that front, the president of the private company Soma Inc., Mr. Gürkan, was heard boasting, “You can ask ‘what changed in the mine?’ The answer is ‘nothing.’ We simply introduced methods of the private sector only.”

Over this process of “introduction of the methods of the private sector,” average gross daily pay of the miners hovered at 47 TL (approximately US$20), while the existing mine tunnels were extended from 350 m to more than 2.5 km. The dissolution of the Council of Public Inspection by government decree in 2011 was clearly instrumental in reducing the role of formal inspections to no more than friendly visits to the company headquarters, with no attention paid to the actual working conditions in the tunnels.

The tragedy is now referred to not as a “working accident,” but the crime of the century not only by Turks but also by the workers abroad. Mining workers in Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela had already shown solidarity by declaring one full day of work leave. In contrast, the half-hearted and tone-deaf speech of Prime Minister Erdogan nearly one full day after the fact, comparing the tragedy to the mining accidents in England and United States in the late 19th century—arguing that “mine accidents are normal globally”—sparked a wave of protests and clashes all over the country.

Despite all this local detail, one should not miss the global aspects of the Soma crimes. For what lies behind this ‘market-does everything better’ approach is the ongoing process of uneven globalization subjugating indigenous peoples of the world to the dictates of global value chains and the corporate profit motive. A recent report released by the Ankara-based think-tank TEPAV reveals, for instance, that deaths per million metric tonnes of coal mined are 7.2 in Turkey, in comparison to 1.27 in China, and 0.04 in the United States. Within Turkey itself, this ratio is reported at 4.41 in the public-owned plants of the TTK, in contrast to the private-sector average of 11.50.

With twelve sub-contracting firms engaged in Soma, the tragedy is a clear manifestation of peripheral “third-world” capitalism at its best, as the most polluting and hazardous industries are being shipped to the global sweatshops with poor regulation and fragmented, informalized working conditions.