Dr. Burcak OZOGLU – CERIC
On the afternoon of May 13th 2014, news agencies reported a blast in the mine in Soma, a small town in Western Turkey. First reports said that a power unit blew up 1.2 miles underground (subsequently, experts revealed there may have been other causes for the release of high amounts of carbon monoxide).
The accident left hundreds of workers trapped underground for hours and days, with 301 reported to have been suffocated to death after four days of rescue operation.
The incident proved itself to be a disaster rather than an accident. It was a major disaster not just because of the high number of casualties but also because of the tragic events after the blast. It was a tragedy not only for the locals but the people of Turkey.
Officials were very slow to provide technical information about the incident and have never announced the exact number and names of the workers who were supposed to be in the mine at that the time. So the rescuers did not actually know who they were searching for.
The minister of energy and national sources, as a representative of the government, was leading the operation and he himself has never provided sufficient information.
The executives of Soma Holding Inc, the company that was operating the mine visited the scene accompanied by government officials, although many accused them as directly responsible because of their negligence.
The death toll generated a tremendous groundswell of action and unrest both locally and all around the country. The ongoing unrest in the country after June 2013 was transferred with all of its anger to the Soma incident. People focused attention on the AKP government`s privatization policies and the profit making obsession of the private sector. Prime Minister Erdoğan continued to be the focus of the protests. He was booed and his car was kicked by the people of Soma when he visited the town after the accident. Erdoğan`s so-called condolence speech, in which he cited 19th century England and proposed these types of accidents as the destiny of miners, provoked more protests.
The mine was closed after five days of rescue operation. The investigation is still continuing just like the protests and actions all over the country.[i]
The main employer of the Soma mines on paper was the Turkish State itself. Audit Department reports revealed the business model of the mine and it clearly showed that Soma Holding Inc. was actually the sub-contracting company of Türkiye Kömür İşletmeleri Kurumu (TKİ), the state owned establishment for coal mining of Turkey.
This fact had two significant points in terms of the Soma incident: Firstly, it was revealed that the AKP government, via being the representative of the main employer of TKI, was obviously amongst those directly responsible for the disaster.
Secondly, the business model for Soma Holding Inc., being sub contracted for the main job, was in breach of current law on mining operations. The implementations of privatization via transferring operations in the mines are restricted to the transfer of supporting operations, whereas in Soma mine the main operation of mining was contracted to Soma Holding Inc.
Apparently, the Soma mine was not exclusive in regards to the relations between the AKP government and Soma Holding Inc. Just after the Soma disaster, newspapers revealed that over 70 billion TRY (£20 billion pounds) of funding had been issued for the Holding in seven years (all covered by AKP governments between 2005-2014).
Another rather striking issue about the employer(s) of Soma was their unperturbed determinations about the mining business. In an interview in September 2012, Alp Gürkan, CEO of Soma Holding, boasted how they cut the costs of coal production from 130-140 US dollars to less than 24USD at Soma mines. He also explained their main motive as profitability in the mining business and how working with TKİ provided this opportunity to them.[ii]
Sub-contracting as an employment model:
Privatization has been one of the main strategic goals of the AKP since their early governments in 2004 and has shaped their political and economic strategies for more than a decade. The figures show how privatisation has been one of the main `businesses` for AKP.
Source: TR Privatization Administration
The case of Soma mines were one of the various implementations of privatisation of the public services. The public services of coal production in the Western basin have been sub-contracted to some specific capitalist groups, since 2005. This met the procedural requirements all lawfully on paper. TKİ had transferred the operational rights not the property of the mines.[iii]
Soma Holding Inc. became the sub-contractor in 2005 and has admistered the mine since then. Soma was not however exceptional. The ministry of labour has revealed that there are 12, 606 workers in the mining industry employed under sub-contracted employers.[iv]
However, for the mining industry in particular, this method comes with some small problems for employers. As mentioned above, the law currently prohibits the main operation of the mining industry to be transferred to a sub-contractor. That is mining, as the main operation, cannot be transferred to a sub-contracted employer, which in this case is Soma Holding Inc.
What happened at Soma was firstly a twisted label for the operation of excavation as a service operation, not as main operation. Secondly in terms of employment of the workers a method of sub-contracting the sub-contracted was used. The workers at the mine were responsible to some kind of vendors, called dayıbaşı, although they were the employers of the “main” sub-contractor (Soma Holding) on paper, they had been working in 30-40 people groups under vendors (dayıbaşı) in the mining jobs.
This inconvenient system of employment explains all the ambiguities about the numbers and names of the workers in the mine at the time of the incident.
The disaster tragically disclosed the problems of the employment model in the privatised mines. In response, the government has not sought to review or stop such procedures. On the contrary, it has sought to accelerate regulation that allows for such models.
A decree law, which was in progress for some months, was brought before parliament just days after the Soma disaster. The law covers regulations and changes in related laws that will make the exceptional employment case in Soma mines a point of principle in sub-contracting implementations. The lessons from the Soma mine have been obviated in the pursuit of employment models that further the profit motives of employers.
[i] See for details: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/14/turkey-mine-blast-relatives-soma-energy-minister : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-27406195http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-27455367
Burcak Ozoglu is an Instructor at Middle East Technical University (METU), Northern Cyprus Campus, and is a visitor at CERIC during 2014.