Violent protests have broken out in several parts of Turkey after the mine disaster on Tuesday that killed at least 274 people, as the debate over workplace safety conditions heats up. The explosion and fire in a coal mine in western Turkey is the country’s worst mining accident for more than two decades. Some 787 workers had been in the mine in Soma, about 250 km south of Istanbul, when the blast occurred, according to Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, says Reuters. More than 100 are still trapped in the mine.
Protests erupted in Ankara’s downtown Kizilay square, in Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square and in the western town of Soma, asking the government resignation, and naming Erdogan a “murderer” and a “thief”. Turkish police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse a crowd of several thousand demonstrators who gathered in central Istanbul. Protesters also clashed with the police in Ankara.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had previously declared three days of national mourning and ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff following the disaster. Authorities claim the tragedy was caused by an explosion and fire at a power distribution unit while one of the survivors has accused a mine supervisor of giving the wrong directions to trapped miners, according to CNN Turkey. So far, about 400 workers have been rescued. The Turkish Red Crescent (TRC), deployed 20 staff of psychologists and social workers, along with the Members of Disaster Psychosocial Services Union to offer a psychosocial support services specialists for the relatives of miners and other people in need.
The tragedy prompted main opposition’s party claimed Erdogan’s rulling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had voted down its proposal to hold parliamentary inquiry into a series of accidents at the mines around Soma, just three weeks ago. Turkey’s mining industry is well known for its poor safety conditions. However, the Labour and Social Security Ministry mentioned the mine in Soma has been inspected five times since 2012, including a recent inspection in March, this year. No work safety and security violations have been found.
In a press conference following the disaster at the Soma mine, Erdogan said that workplace accidents happen all the time, and this is particularly so when it comes to mining sparking a wave of criticism over his reaction. “These are ordinary things. There is a thing in literature called ‘work accident’… It happens in other work places, too,” Erdogan said. “It happened here. It’s in its nature. It’s not possible for there to be no accidents in mines. Of course we were deeply pained by the extent here.”
Amnesty International has released a statement on the disaster saying Turkish mine explosion tragedy should have been averted and urges the Turkish government to urgently investigate the coal mine explosion that killed nearly 300 people.
“This was a tragedy that should have been avoided. The long history of deaths in mines in Turkey raises chilling questions over workers’ safety. The fact that the government rejected recent calls by parliamentarians to investigate serious work-related accidents is nothing short of shocking. They are playing with people’s lives,” said Andrew Gardner, Researcher on Turkey at Amnesty International.
The mine is owned by Soma Kömür İşletmeleri A.Ş, a subsidiary of Soma Holding, the largest underground coal producer in Turkey. In its defense, Soma Komur Isletmeleri argued its staff was unionized and all had insurance and social security benefits, and that its site was inspected every six months. According to International labour Organization (ILO) Turkey ranks third as worst in the world for worker deaths in 2012 and worst among European countries. Turkey has not yet ratified C176 – Safety and Health in Mines Convention, 1995 (No. 176). The disaster at the Soma mine could have significant repercussions for the Turkish prime minister as he is expected to run for president in the August election, a candidacy not yet confirmed.
UN officials extend condolences following Turkish coal mine tragedy
Previous mine disasters in Turkey include the explosion at a coal mine in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak in which 263 miners died, in 1992. According to the Turkish publication Today’s Zaman, just a day after the blast in Soma, a collapse killed a person at the mine in the Gelik district, province of Zonguldak. The mine is reportedly unlicensed.
United Nations officials have offered their condolences to the families affected by the coal mine explosion in the town of Soma in western Turkey. “I am immensely saddened at the deaths of so many miners in Turkey,” Guy Ryder, the Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO), said in a statement on ILO’s official website. “This tragedy is a reminder of the paramount importance of occupational safety and health in the mining sector. The ILO stands ready to provide continued support to ensure the safety of workers in line with international standards and to prevent future accidents,” he added. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be sending a letter to the Turkish President on the mining tragedy. “He will offer condolences to the impacted families and the Government of Turkey,” UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said.
President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso also addressed condolences to the people and the government of Turkey. “I was deeply shocked to learn of the scale of the deaths and injuries caused by the terrible explosion at a coal mine in Western Turkey. Our thoughts this morning are with the families of the victims of this tragic accident, and with those still waiting to hear of the fate on their missing loved ones. On behalf of the European Commission, and on my own behalf, I would like to convey my sincere condolences and solidarity with the people and Government of Turkey,” he said.
Sources: Reuters, CNN Turkey, Today’s Zaman, various organizations