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In Turkey’s mine disaster, tragedy highlights grave mistakes

We are not expecting the mining companies to reinvent the wheel; however, apparently there are better precautions that can be taken

Ceylan Ozbudak

Published: Updated:

On May 13, hearts stopped in Turkey as a fire broke out in the nation's biggest coalmine, Soma. As the nation mourns Turkey's deadliest mine accident ever, three days of mourning was announced, flags have been lowered throughout Turkey, and festivals, concerts and games have been cancelled. The country as a whole stands by the miners and their loved ones.

“Shall I take my boots off so the stretcher won’t get dirty?” an injured miner asked as he was being carried to the ambulance to be transferred to the hospital, covered in dark smoke, almost unable to breathe. Another survivor asks kindly “please find my helmet brother or they will cut the cost from my wage.”

A miner hugs a relative in front of a coal mine site in Soma, a district in Turkey's western province of Manisa May 14, 2014. (Reuters)
A miner hugs a relative in front of a coal mine site in Soma, a district in Turkey's western province of Manisa May 14, 2014. (Reuters)

The incident, which so far has taken 300 lives has not only been the worst mining disasters in Turkey’s history, but also the most heartwrenching when combined with the beautiful lessons of humanity from the miners and their families. These beautiful souls have been working in that coal mine for only 40 Turkish lira (about $20) daily and many of those who were being carried in stretchers had holes in their socks. As I am writing this piece, Turkey has 300 martyrs in the Soma disaster and 76 million have been wounded. The search and rescue teams have been working selflessly for days. “How long is your shift?” a fireman is asked as he stands outside the mine; “There is no shift” he answers, “we are here to help as much as we can, and we will leave when it’s over.”

The mine was privatized in 2005 against the will of thousands of miners. When the governmental institution TKI (Turkish Coal Enterprises) was running the mine, one ton of coal was mined for $130 Dollars. The new company decreased the production cost to $23 Dollars per ton, which is suspected to have had a negative effect on the safety precautions. In this particular mine, the system was 30% mechanized 30 % over the last few years and was going to be mechanized to 80 % next year, which would have decreased the casualties we're seeing now had this been applied earlier. There were safety chambers in the mine when it was under governmental control. However, they were removed after privatization and the standard oxygen masks were only good for 45 minutes. Many of the deceased were found wearing these masks but since time worked against them, they could not be saved.

Energy politics and workplace disasters

Surely we will mourn and feel for the deceased and hold hands together in solidarity and call the mining company to account. However, this should be followed by a deep reassessment of workplace accidents in Turkey and also our energy politics. Coal is the world's primary electricity generating resource, providing around 40 percent of global electricity. Although there are numerous problems with coal production and use, global consumption continues to climb.

We are not expecting the mining companies to reinvent the wheel; however, apparently there are better precautions that can be taken

Ceylan Ozbudak

In developed countries, we have not come across such deadly accidents in the last five decades. The last of the deadliest mining accidents in the developed world was a 1946 accident in Germany, where 405 miners lost their lives. 42% of electricity in the U.S. comes from coal: This ratio is 30% in Turkey. On one hand the world is changing rapidly, and on the other hand, many things remain the same. What is different is the precautions applied to keep the miners safe. While in Turkey the ratio miners’ deaths per million tons of coal is 7.22 while this number is 0.22 in the U.S. We are not expecting the mining companies to reinvent the wheel; however, apparently there are better precautions that can be taken, and we are expecting them to apply these precautions to the highest level, as President Gül also stated in his speech in Soma.

Manisa deputy of the main opposition CHP Özgür Özel, accused trade and labor unions of being responsible for the Soma blast due to the internal politics of the union. "The trouble in the Soma mine was that the competent trade union was unable to carry out its main tasks". Özel confirmed that the responsible trade unions did not carry out any measures to improve safety at the mine.

This tragedy highlighted a very important fact for the Turkish people; such dangerous jobs are not sustainable. Every day we are sending thousands of mine workers underground simply because these people need the money to keep their families going. For how long can we rely on our fellow citizens extracting coal from the mines, and to what extent can we protect people when they are two kilometers underground? The press talked to the survivors and they all said something to make us understand how difficult the lives of these men are; “I have to go back to the mine to pay my debt to the bank.” The coalmine in Soma provides jobs for thousands of people, but Soma does not only have an underground, as Adnan Oktar stated on his TV programs. Jobs can be created in Some above ground as well. Soma is situated in the West of Anatolia, in Manisa, where we can create jobs above the ground for these families as farm workers.

Measures are being taken to relieve the stress of the families of the deceased. For example, the education and all clothing costs of the children of the miners who lost their lives will be met, private banks announced they will be writing-off the debts of the miners, Turkish telecom will provide free phone and internet service to the families and humanitarian aid organizations have already set up a trust fund for the orphans. In the first three days, aid organizations distributed meals for 1,000 people in the accident area.

Don’t just ‘make do’

Once again we come back to the ethics and the conscience of those who have been running the Soma mine. According to reports, there were no circumstances that were contrary to relevant legislation since being inspected from 2012 until now. The law requires you to check safety precautions twice a year, but if you feel truly responsible for the lives of the workers, you can carry out safety controls as frequently as once a month and don’t just “make do” with the “standard” precautions; you must be prepared for any and all scenarios. We are talking about human lives here; the life of a person cannot simply be deducted as “business expenditure”. Questions must be asked and investigations must be carried out impeccably. As the people of this world, we cannot live a life indexed to the brutality of pure capitalism. Our moral values, our respect to human life and our solidarity are our humanity.

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Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. As a representative of Harun Yahya organization, she frequently cites quotations from the author in her writings. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

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