Soma and the Subcontractor System

Kaya Genç

The rescue operation at the Soma coal mine in western Turkey came to an end on Saturday 17 May. Workers sealed the entrance to the mine with a concrete wall. The final death toll was announced on Sunday: 301 people had been killed and another 80 injured, making this the worst mine disaster in Turkey’s history.

The Soma mine was operated through the so-called taşeron (‘subcontractor’) system. In 2003, the Erdoğan government passed legislation allowing publicly owned coal mines to be run by private companies. Production increased but costs were cut and safety standards dropped. More than 1000 miners died between 2002 and 2012. The number of deaths per million tons of coal mined in Turkey was 8.02 in 2007 and 7.22 in 2008, compared to 0.04 and 0.02 in the United States, and 1.50 and 1.27 in China. In 2012, the International Labour Organisation ranked Turkey the worst country in Europe and third worst in the world for worker deaths. A parliamentary request for an inquiry into safety standards was ignored last year. Yesterday, a parliamentary committee was set up to investigate the Soma disaster. It remains to be seen what effect it will have.

The economist Hayri Kozanoğlu has pointed out that most Soma miners (9000 out of 10,000 workers) are in debt, which is one of the reasons they’re reluctant to criticise safety standards. When the last broadcasting vans leave town, the workers will return to the mine. Their struggle has been going on for a long time: tens of thousands of miners marched to Ankara on 5 January 1991 to demand better pay. The president, Turgut Özal, responded by threatening to close the mines. A year later an explosion in Zonguldak killed 263 miners.

After Soma, the prime minister gave examples from coal mine accidents in 19th-century England: 204 deaths in 1862, 361 in 1866, 290 in 1894. ‘Let's please not say that these things never happen in coal mines elsewhere,’ he said.