On Tuesday, May 13, at 15.00, Turkey witnessed one of the greatest workplace murders in its history. More than 700 mine workers were trapped in Soma Coal, a private lignite mine in Soma, in the western province of Manisa. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has tried to minimize the figures, while deploying hundreds of military troops and police forces to the town and the miners’ village of Eynes to head off possible unrest. Ten hours after the explosion, Energy Minister Taner Yılmaz declared the death toll as 166, but the numbers are expected to rise. The Disaster and Emergency Directorate (AFAD) declared on Wednesday, at 2.30 that 265 bodies had been reached at the moment. Calls for immediate action are rising everywhere in the country
At “Soma Coal,” a private lignite mine company operating in Soma in the Aegean province of Manisa, one of the greatest workplace murders in Turkish history occurred on Tuesday, May 13 at 15.15. Mr. Çetin Uygur, a former chairperson of the Underground Mine Workers Trade Union, an affiliate of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DİSK), as well as a mining engineer, said in the early hours after the accident that this was the greatest workplace massacre in the history of the Turkish working class. Uygur stated that nearly 700 mine workers were trapped in the mine while adding that the AKP government was sending large numbers of military troops and police forces to the region with an eye to using force in order to suppress widespread reactions.
While hundreds of mine workers were trapped underground, the AKP government tried to minimize the death toll figures for a number of hours by declaring that only five were killed in the explosion. However, toward midnight, a widespread news blockage by the mainstream media broke down, and Mr. Uygur’s statement regrettably proved to be real.
Energy Minister Taner Yıldız, who initially said the “death toll figures are not important,” was forced to declare the number of killed mine workers first as 151, then as 166 following Manisa Mayor Cengiz Ergün’s statement that the death toll had already reached 157. Minister Yıldız continued to dismiss the non-official statements, by saying: “Even though the previous information given by the unauthorized persons about the death roll correspond to our present data, this does not make them right.”
Minister Yıldız’s statement was not a coincidence. Soma Holding, the parent company of Soma Coal, has close ties with the AKP government. Melike Doğru, the wife of the general director of Soma Holding Mine Enterprises, is a councilor from the government party. Soma Coal also provided the infamous charity coal bags which were distributed by the AKP during the previous local elections. Charity distribution is one of the most important political tools of the government party in recruiting support from the country’s poor.
Soma Holding has profited greatly from its relations with the AKP government. The holding, which entered the underground mining sector during the privatization drive of the 1990s, was strengthened by the decision of the AKP government to legalize the “royalty” system which is based on renting in return for a coal share in 2005.
According to the previous statements of the president of Soma Holding, Alp Gürkan, thanks to the royalty system, the company has been able to reduce the cost of coal from 130-140 dollars per ton to 23.80 dollars per ton, including the royalty share. The subcontracting of unskilled mining labour was one of the main factors in reducing the costs, as the average monthly wage of nearly 5,000 mine workers is only 500 dollars.
The company also entered into the field of urban pillage in 2006 by buying the Tilage construction firm and beginning to transfer its profits obtained in the sub-contracted lignite mining sector to investments in the high-profit real estate/construction sector in İstanbul. The company has two important construction investments in İstanbul, one the Maslak Spine Tower in Sarıyer and the other a shopping mall in the Anatolian-side district of Kartal.
A parliamentary proposal of investigation about the working conditions into Soma mine workers and work accidents in the town proposed by opposition parties was refused just two weeks ago, on April 29, by the majority votes of AKP deputies.
Oxygen masks on dead miners’ faces
While Minister Yıldız increased the death toll to 201 in a declaration on Wednesday, May 14 at 5.00, rescue workers, trade unions and other professional organizations in the region are worried that since nearly 700 miners were underground during the shift change, the number may increase dramatically. Rescue workers have said the dead bodies of the mine workers found underground have not yet been taken extracted as there is not enough space to store them in the already-full cold storage and abattoir that is standing in as a makeshift morgue. In several examples, the bodies of the dead workers were taken to hospital with oxygen masks attached to their faces in order to misguide the thousands of miners’ family members waiting for hours in front of the hospitals. In Soma, which has a population of 100,000, each family has now been affected by the accident by either losing a relative or a neighbour. Most of the workers were reportedly killed by carbon monoxide poisoning because the fire started in the ventilation area.
Due to the disinformation of the government and mainstream media, and the difficult conditions around the mine because of the explosion, there is still no exact information about the real reason for the accident. According to expert mining engineers from the professional organizations at the scene, the fire broke out either due to an explosion at an underground transformer or in the command room. However, trade unions and professional organizations from the mining sector have emphasized that privatization and the use of subcontractors has seriously weakened workplace safety at the lignite mines, which were once the recipient of the highest quality investments in the sector. Most of the workers in the region say work accidents are now daily facts of life in the town.
Turkey rising up for mine workers
Various trade unions and Gezi Resistance forums have begun to issue calls for action for Wednesday, although several demonstrations started at midnight around the country.
In Ankara, Eskişehir, Çanakkale, İstanbul and Antalya, university students and residents staged marches and sit-ins in various squares at midnight.
University and secondary school students have also declared boycotts for Wednesday. Various demonstrations will be organized throughout the day in Ankara, İstanbul – including at Soma Holding’s headquarters – İzmir, Antalya, Eskişehir, Adana, Kocaeli, Tarsus and Samsun, as well as at ministries.