Turkey’s poor record on work safety

Friday 21/08/2015
A May 2014 photo shows a Turkish miner helped by workmates after an explosion in Soma, Manisa.

Istanbul - All that Rahmi Sozuer wanted was a place where he could work without putting his life in danger. But he never found it.
Sozuer, a former coal miner, es­caped death on May 13, 2014, the day 301 of his colleagues perished in an underground fire in a coal mine in Soma in western Turkey. Sozuer did not work the day of the worst coal mine disaster in Turkish his­tory because he had swapped shifts with another worker. His friend sur­vived the disaster.
Following the catastrophe, So­zuer, 36, decided to no longer work in Turkey’s notoriously unsafe mines. He found a job working for a company hired by the Bayrakli municipality in Izmir, about 120 kilometres south of Soma. But on August 1st, Sozuer died at a con­struction site when the dump truck he was driving struck a high-voltage electrical cable.
Deadly accidents such as that are everyday events in Turkey. On Au­gust 4th, four workers at a highway construction site in western Turkey died when a scaffold collapsed. Five days later, two construction work­ers were killed in the central Anato­lian city of Kayseri. One day later, a worker in the northern city of Zon­guldak was crushed to death when a metal door fell on him during con­struction of a road tunnel. On Au­gust 10th, a coal miner in Zonguldak died when a mine shaft collapsed.
A total of 1,886 workers were killed in work-related accidents in Turkey in 2014, according to the Workers’ Health and Work Safety Assembly, a non-governmental or­ganisation campaigning for better safety standards.
That makes the country one of the world’s most dangerous places for workers.
In a statement on its website, the Turkey’s Work Safety Assem­bly called the accidents “murders”. In July, 166 workers were killed in work-related accidents, bringing the total in the first seven months of 2015 to 971, it said. Mining, con­struction and shipbuilding are among the most dangerous indus­tries.
The Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, a think-tank in Ankara, said in a 2010 report that mining in Turkey was deadlier than even in China, a country known for frequent mining accidents.
Based on figures from 2008, the report said there were 7.22 worker deaths per 1 million tons of coal pro­duced in Turkey compared to 1.27 in China and 0.02 in the United States.
Companies’ disregard for exist­ing safety regulations and a lack of oversight by authorities are seen as the main reasons behind Turkey’s poor record.
Conditions in the mining indus­try, which has thousands of small mines, have been in the spotlight since the Soma disaster. Mehmet Torun, a former chairman of the As­sociation of Mining Engineers, told the newspaper Radikal in 2014 that about half of the 13,400 mines oper­ating in Turkey did not comply with regulations.
In a 2015 report, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), a labour union association, gave Turkey the ranking of five, putting it among “the worst countries in the world to work in”.
Earlier in August, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the biggest opposition bloc in Turkey’s parlia­ment, called for a parliamentary inquiry into the reasons behind the high number of work-related deaths. “Work-related accidents can easily be prevented with the right kind of [safety] measures and a modern economic policy,” CHP said in a statement, adding that about 12,700 workers had died in Turkey in the last 12 years.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Demo­cratic Party (HDP) said the gov­ernment was refusing to impose stricter standards on the mining industry because it cared more about the well-being of companies than about workers. “For the gov­ernment, the important thing is not the workers’ safety but the ability of mines to keep up production,” deputy HDP leader Günay Kubilay said.
Under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister from 2003 until he became president in 2014, the government sold many former­ly state-run coal mines, the mine in Soma among them.
A trial against 45 defendants, among them top executives of mine operator Soma Holding, is under way in the western city of Akhisar.
Turkey recently ratified the Safe­ty and Health in Mines Conven­tion of the International Labour Organisation, which includes a programme of safety measures for governments and companies. The government says it wants to make sure workers are better trained and give companies incentives to im­prove safety standards.
But critics say some of the prom­ised improvements are being rolled back. Following the Soma disaster, the government closed 130 coal mines because they did not meet safety standards. But the cabinet issued a decree giving companies five more years to comply with in­ternational safety regulations.
CHP deputy Ozgur Ozel said about 60 of the recently closed mines could reopen without updat­ing safety procedures and equip­ment.