The cost of neoliberalism: Soma massacre in Turkey

On Tuesday, May 13, hundreds of miners got trapped underground following a fire at a coalmine belonging to Soma Holding in Soma, a small town of 100,000 inhabitants in the city of Manisa in western Turkey, whose economy is primarily based on the mining industry. The rescue operation came to an end as of Saturday, May 17, and Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yıldız declared the final death toll to be 301 miners.

Even though the rescue operation ended, the fact that there are dozens of mining families who are still waiting in front of the mine or the hospital morgue with the hope to get information about their missing ones says otherwise. The contradiction between the official number of deaths declared by the government and the number of miners that are still missing suggests that the actual death toll reaches up to over 400 miners and that Minister Yildiz minimizes the number in order to cover up the actual gravity of the disaster. This only points out to the presence of temporary and subcontracted workers, who had been illegally employed by Soma Holding in the mine, during the disaster.

The night of the disaster, both the government and the Soma Holding authorities declared the cause of fire to be an electrical fault in the underground transformer causing an explosion which disabled the ventilation system in the mine and led to carbon monoxide poisoning. However, a senior manager of Soma Holding contradicted this initial claim during a press conference held on Friday, May 16 and stated that the cause of fire was still “unknown.” Moreover, he also confessed that there were no safe rooms in the Soma coal mine, disproving the Soma Holding CEO Alp Gürkan’s previous claim from a year ago that the mine was one of the safest mines in Turkey which used the latest mining technology and which “had been fitted with life rooms.”

While the rescue operation was going on, it was disclosed that a recent call at the parliament for a safety inspection at the mines in Soma was rejected by the AKP deputies only two weeks ago, on April 29, based upon the claim by the AKP’s deputy of Manisa, Muzaffer Yurttas, that the mines in Turkey were safer compared to mines in most other countries around the world. What’s more, the disaster also revealed the Soma Holding Mine Enterprises’ close ties with the ruling AKP. For instance, Melike Dogru, the wife of the general director of the Soma Holding Mine Enterprises as well as the ex-administrative manager of the company, is the current regional councilor of the AKP. Furthermore, Soma Coal is known to be the provider of the charity coal bags distributed by the AKP during the local elections to recruit electoral support amongst the poor of the country. Moreover, Soma mine workers declared in a news coverage that they had been subjected to mobbing by the management that threated the morning-shift workers to fire them if they refused to participate to the Manisa rally of the AKP, which was part of the electoral campaign for the last local elections.

All these facts point out that the disaster in Soma coalmine is not an unfortunate accident. It is an obvious workers’ massacre caused by the quest for profit of the capital, which considers work-security measures as mere cost factors, and not as nonnegotiable requirements to ensure workers’ health and safety. During the rule of the neoliberal AKP government, the subcontracting system and work insecurity have become state policies as exemplified by countless privatizations that took place in sectors such as education, health, forestry, mining and more. Under the AKP government, Turkey has consistently been among the top three in the list of countries by work-related accidents and deaths. The AKP government, with all its neoliberal anti-worker policies, is the primary responsible of the Soma massacre!

In fact, the workers’ massacre in Soma is not the first. However, it is the worst workers’ massacre in Turkey to date, with a death toll that surpassed that of the Grizu Massacre, which took place in a mine in the Black Sea port of Zonguldak in 1992 due to a gas explosion and which had resulted with the death of 263 miners. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security itself recognizes that 293 miners had lost their lives due to “work-related accidents and occupational diseases” within the past three years. According to the DISK-AR (Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey Research Institute) Report, the number of miner deaths per million ton extracted coal in Turkey is 6 times higher than the number in China, and 361 times higher than the number in the United States. Despite this fact, there is no health center or clinic near mines anywhere in Turkey, with specific units targeting occupational diseases and injuries related to mining, for example a burns unit, which could provide timely treatment to mine workers in cases of accidents, not even in a high-risk mine region like Soma.

When we extend the scope of employment-related statistics to include all sectors and industries, the picture gets even worse. According to the same report, the rate of subcontracted employment over all sectors have risen almost %450 during the AKP government period. In addition, the total number of work-related deaths during the same period (2002-2012) have risen %46 compared to that of the previous periods (1946-2012). Under the AKP, 11,282 work-related deaths were reported in Turkey, with %94 of these deaths involving subcontracted workers. It is emphasized in the report that these numbers simply reflect reported deaths and that the total number of work-related deaths would amount up to tens of thousands if the deaths among the informally employed were included in the calculations. These numbers alone prove that Erdogan and his ministers are not simply “thieves;” they are also “murderers.”

While the Soma Holding authorities refused all allegations about their negligence of the poor working and safety conditions that had led to the Soma Massacre, and shamelessly declared that they will neither step down, nor close the mine off, nor withdraw from the mining sector, the government also tried to wash its hands of the massacre and deny any responsibility, again with Erdogan’s politics of faith and morality, and with his recent politics of victimhood, which suggest that any claim that points out to his government’s responsibility in the Soma disaster or in any other incident for that matter, is part of a larger plan to weaken his power. In his public statement that came after his visit to the massacre site on Wednesday, May 14, Erdogan first accused the call at the parliament for a safety inspection at the mines in Soma of having been made with the mere aim of obstructing the parlimentary agenda. He then stated that “death is in the nature (in the sense of an essence assigned by God) of this sector.” In an attempt to justify his point that “it is all fate” and to shrug off any criticism and responsibility, he cited mining disasters that took place in other countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries – when the safety measures and equipment that could have prevented the Soma Massacre didn’t exist. He said, “I went back in British history. Some 204 people died there after a mine collapsed in 1838. In 1866, 361 miners died in Britain. In an explosion in 1894, 290 people died there.” Then he added, “Take America with all of its technology and everything. In 1907, 361 miners died there.”

Erdogan also pointed out a statement issued by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security that claimed that regular inspections had been carried out in the mine, with the most recent being on March 17, during which the mine was found in complete compliance with Turkey’s safety regulations. However, the survivors of the massacre and the families of the lost miners blame the company and the government of being aware of the security loopholes in the mine and of not doing anything about them. The workers declared that the safety inspections at the mine are mere bureaucratic events, which mostly take place in the offices and involve signing papers rather than involving careful investigations inside the mine, and that serious safety violations have always been overlooked. Furthermore, Turkey has refused to ratify the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 176 titled, “the Safety and Health in Mines Convention,” which was established in 1995 in order to prevent any fatalities, injuries or health conditions affecting workers or members of the public, or damage to the environment arising from mining operations, and which delegates responsibility to governments and the owners of mines in cases of negligence about or violation of the workplace safety standards in mines. For instance, Turkey is one of the only three countries of the world where the presence of safe rooms inside the mines is still not legally required.

Following Erdogan’s remarks, while some townspeople attacked and ransacked the local office of the AKP in Soma in anger, others blocked the passage of Erdogan’s car on the streets of Soma. While some of his bodyguards removed the license plate of his official car in an attempt to misguide the angry protesters, others tried to hide the prime minister in a supermarket along with the riot police as the protesters shouted “murderer,” “prime minister, step down.” Photos of Erdogan’s advisor Yusuf Yerkel kicking a protester being held down by the riot police in
Soma during the protests have gone viral in the media. What’s worse is that there are multiple video recordings that show Prime Minister Erdogan himself cursing and hitting at protesters in front of the supermarket where he took refuge from the public.

Besides his attitude and reluctance to accept any responsibility for the massacre, another reason that led to uprisings in Soma was the fact that the rescue operation halted for hours so that extreme security measures could be taken for Erdogan’s visit to the mine. Same thing happened again during President Abdullah Gul’s visit to the mine a day later, on Thursday, May15. While both Erdogan and Gul walked around the entrance of the mine, making so-called observations surrounded by lines of security guards and riot police, some people who waited around the mine entrance and protested against Erdogan’s and Gul’s inconsideration for the rescue operation were arrested and beaten up by the cops. They shouted that their sons, fathers, and relatives were still trapped inside the mine and could not be rescued because the murderers wanted to show off their nice, black suits at the crime scene.

The regime’s response to the public discontent was through violence elsewhere in the country as well. Since the day of the massacre, mass anti-government protests have been taking place in various cities and provinces of Turkey, including all major cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Eskisehir, Adana and Diyarbakir. Unions called for a day-long partial strike on Wednesday, May 14, while university and high-school students went on boycott. Tens of thousands of people who keep gathering all over the country and shouting “Murderer Erdogan,” “Government, step down,” “Stop subcontracted work,” “We want job security and work safety,” and “Murder, not destiny” are being subjected to brutal violence by the riot police, who employs tear gas, plastic bullets and water cannons to disperse the masses. Such response, though unjustified, is not surprising given the fact that, the regime is afraid that the Soma Massacre could provoke a working class uprising in the country, which would gather a massive public support in the wake of the anniversary of the Gezi Resistance.

In addition to the police violence and arrests, the government has also been taking recourse to perception management and moral and physical pressure. For instance, on Saturday, May 17, the riot police established two check points to control entries and exists to the town of Soma in addition to responding to the mass protests that have been taking place in the town for the past four days with tear gases, water cannons and plastic bullets. The government officials in Soma adopted the classic official discourse that those who protest on the streets are not members of mourning families and townspeople, but “outside forces” and “provocateurs” and banned all public demonstrations on the streets. This state of emergency in the town crystallized in the pounding and arrest of a group of 36 people including lawyers from Progressive Lawyer’s Association who went to Soma to provide legal support to the family members of the lost miners in Saturday afternoon. It is stated that the mining families are under government’s pressure to remain silent while religious discourses of faith and morality that emphasize the role of fate and belief are said to be promoted by the government officials and religious figures.

We present our condolences to all family members and relatives of the workers who had lost their lives in Soma Massacre, the worst workers’ massacre in the history of the country.

We want immediate implementation of thoughtful and detailed judiciary and administrative investigations. The Soma Holding authorities and the management team of the Soma mine, as well as anyone whose malpractice led to this massacre should be put on trial and be punished.

The subcontracted and insecure work must immediately stop!

All mines should be expropriated under the full control of the workers without compensation!

Free health centers that have specific units targeting occupational diseases and injuries related to mining should be established near all mines in Turkey in order to provide timely treatment to mine workers in cases of accidents.

The state and police violence should immediately stop!

Neither the work-related deaths, nor the AKP government is our destiny! The AKP government who is the primary responsible of the Soma Massacre, both with its harsh anti-worker neoliberalization policies tailored to the quest for profit of the capital, and with its attitude of negligence prior to the massacre and of violence to suppress the mass discontent, should immediately step down!

We call all union federations to organize a general strike around these immediate demands!

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