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The price of Turkish coal 24 avril 2015

Posted by Acturca in Economy / Economie, Energy / Energie, Turkey / Turquie.
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Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt) Friday, April 24, 2015

Cagri Ozdemir *

Turkey’s neoliberal economic policies have led to escalating mining deaths, among them those investigated at the Soma trial this week, writes Cagri Ozdemir from Ankara.

The trial into Turkey’s worst mining accident in recent memory, claiming the lives of 301 people in May 2014, has opened in the town of Akhisar, home to 100,000 people.

Relatives of the dead miners, a total of 487 people, have filed 139 individual cases against the mine’s owners, Soma Mining. Of the 45 defendants, eight are currently in custody charged with the willful homicide of the 301 victims.

Last week, the Akhisar Penal Court announced that the defendants would be joining the hearing by video conference. The measure was taken to prevent potential outbursts of anger in the courtroom that might harm the defendants.

« We do not want to see them [the defendants] as if we are watching a movie. We are not cannibals. We will not eat them, » said Nursel Kocabas, whose husband Mustafa was among the 301 victims.

« If their [the defendants’] lives are valuable, what about ours? We only want them to look at our faces. I want them to serve the longest sentences possible, » she added.

The president of the Turkish Union of Bar Associations, Metin Feyzioglu, is among those following the hearings. In the wake of the mass protests that took place against government officials after the incident last year, more than 1,000 personnel are expected to enforce security measures in the town.

On 13 May 2014, an electrical transformer malfunctioned. The subsequent fire trapped workers inside the mine. While most of the miners died from carbon monoxide poisoning, some were burned alive.

In terms of lost lives, Soma was the biggest mining accident to take place in Turkey since the Zonguldak disaster in 1992, when 270 miners died. In addition to the death toll at the Soma disaster, the surviving miners are still facing psychological difficulties. Many of them are on anti-depressants to cope with post-traumatic stress disorders and have been unable to find new jobs.

For Cigdem Yumbul, project coordinator at the Turkish Union of Psychosocial Services in Emergencies (APHB), trauma, unemployment and the upcoming anniversary of the disaster have all had a negative impact on the residents of Soma.

« People are reluctant to get psychological help because they fear they will not be able to find jobs, » she said. According to APHB figures, around 10,000 Soma residents faced hardships at various levels in the aftermath of the disaster.

None of this suffering would have happened if preventable measures were in place. Allegations of serious negligence regarding safety conditions have been directed at the company administration, but have been dismissed by company officials.

A parliamentary commission established to investigate the cause of the fire published a report last December identifying negligence on the company’s part. However, rather than inadequate safety measures at the Soma mine alone, it was mining regulations in Turkey as a whole that do not meet international standards for safe mining.

Prior to the Soma accident, Turkey had failed to sign the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Safety and Health in Mines Convention of 1995. This document regulates safety requirements for work in mines, including inspections and the provision of special working devices and protective equipment.

The convention also sets out regulations on monitoring workers’ activities in mines and the measures to be taken in emergency situations, especially the construction of rescue chambers.

It is safe to say that had Turkish regulations met ILO standards, a disaster on the Soma scale could have been avoided. Turkey only signed the convention in December 2014 after publication of the commission’s report.

Since 1941, more than 3,000 miners have died in similar accidents in Turkey. In 2012 alone, 78 miners died, followed by 95 in 2013. A comparison with other countries illustrates the gravity of the situation.

According to the Turkish Economic Policy Research Foundation (TEPAV), an NGO, while 1.27 people have died in China per million tons of hard coal produced, the death rate has been 7.22 in Turkey. The figure is 0.02 for the United States.

The scale of the Soma disaster is directly linked to the methods of the mining industry in Turkey. Since the late 1980s, the state has given private companies the right to investigate and exploit underground natural resources in return for royalty payments.

These payments, now covering the highest percentage of mining activities in Turkey, have led private enterprises to reduce their costs in order to increase their profits. The Soma Mining Company bought the administration and exploitation rights of several mines from the Turkish Hard Coal Institute (TKK) in 2005 in return for such payments. It is currently the second-largest coal producer in Turkey, employing some 5,000 miners.

In an interview in 2012, company chairman Alp Gurkan explained how private enterprises had lowered operational costs and increased the profitability of the mines. « The cost of producing one ton of coal was $130 to $140 for TKK prior to privatisation. We guaranteed to lower costs to $28.80 with a 15 per cent royalty payment to the state, » Gurkan said.

He explained that the company had increased efficiency at the mine and proudly comparing the production methods of the private sector to those in public enterprises.

Increasing efficiency was one development after the privatisation of the mine, but the means to achieve this was also critical. TEPAV research shows that while the fatality rate is 11.5 people per one million tons of coal produced in Turkish private-sector coal mines, it is only 4.41 in publicly owned mines.

According to Aziz Celik, a professor of social policies at Kocaeli University, the takeover of unprofitable public sector mines by private companies has increased fatal mining accidents in Turkey.

« In the Zonguldak region, deadly accidents in private enterprises are 12 times higher than in fully unionised public corporations, » Celik said. « The idea of flexible working conditions in Turkey contributes to the surging fatalities in the sector. »

The current outlook for unionisation in Turkey also appears to be significant, since the death toll in workplace accidents and periodic safety inspections in mines appear to be linked to the strength and presence of unions.

According to 2015 data, among the 12 million registered workers in Turkey, only 1.2 million are members of a trade union. This is the lowest rate among member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), where the average is around 9.3 per cent.

The situation is even worse when unregistered workers are considered. The Turkish Ministry of Labour and Social Security only takes registered workers into account, overlooking the real numbers of those who are not unionised.

Over the last 15 years, the proportion of workers with collective-bargaining rights has fallen drastically in Turkey. Although there has been a decreasing trend in unionisation in the OECD countries at large, the decline has been happening at a faster rate in Turkey as a result of a growing number of subcontractors and privatisation initiatives by the government.

According to Gamze Yucesan-Ozdemir, a professor of social and labour policies, there is a direct link between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s neoliberal policies and the reorganisation of production.

In a report entitled the « Social Policy Regime in the AKP Years, » Yucesan-Ozdemir argues that the government’s policy preferences have resulted in a surge in dangerous working conditions.

« Social policies in Turkey have boosted informal work and de-unionisation, resulting in job insecurity, » she said. « Irregularities and subcontracting methods have become widespread, paving the way for the increasing presence of subcontractors and temporary workers. This situation has had a negative impact on wages and the rights of workers in the formal sector. »

Increasing flexibility in the labour market affects safety conditions in different businesses. For Celik, the ownership of high-risk industries such as mining should be returned to public enterprises.

« Insecure working conditions and subcontracting in the public sector should come to an end, » Celik argued. « This would be the most effective way to reduce fatalities in the mines. »

By signing the ILO Convention and other measures, the Turkish government is making efforts to improve mining conditions in the country. But a return to full-scale public ownership in mining industries in Turkey still remains a distant option for the foreseeable future.

* The writer is a political analyst.

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