THE death of more than 300 workers in the recent coal mine explosion in Soma, Turkey, has been met with sorrow and shock worldwide.
The tragic incident raises questions about the rapid economic growth Turkey experienced in the past decade.
Turkey‘s recent record of tamping inflation, building investor confidence, and attracting record levels of foreign direct investment has earned it high praise from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, while the stewardship of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan was the darling of the mainstream international media, until the Gezi Park protests last summer.
How could this massive disaster happen in Turkey, a country that has been taken as an exemplar to others in the region, not only as a shining star of democracy, but also as an economic miracle?
The answer lies within the question itself. Soma is the price of achieving record levels of economic growth in such a short time. The state-owned mine has been leased by the Soma Holding Company since 2005, and the company has slashed mining costs by more than 80 percent, according to its chairman.
What a week ago might have been hailed as further evidence of Turkey’s economic development is now cause for skepticism, as news coming from Soma reveals that even the most basic precautions were not taken to ensure miner safety.
The increased use of subcontracted work and the loose regulatory framework adopted during the AKP regime created an environment where companies like Soma Holding are encouraged to prioritize lowering production costs, even at the expense of worker safety.
Industry regulations are ignored with impunity, and calls for safety audits are rarely taken up — the majority AKP in parliament voted down the main opposition party’s proposal just weeks before the Soma explosion. Investigations into corporate malfeasance have occurred alongside the rescue operation, as it is becoming increasingly clear that the mine was overcrowded and staffed by large numbers of unregistered workers, at least one of whom was underage.
The government response to the explosion has been disappointing, with Erdogan showing a thin skin for criticism and callousness toward workers’ families. When recently asked about workplace safety under the AKP’s watch, Erdogan, responding defensively, cited three large mine explosions in 19th century England.
Unfortunately, the comparison with the Industrial Revolution is far too apt: Records kept by the International Labor Organization reveal approximately 1,200 workers die annually in Turkey due to unregulated and unsafe working conditions, giving the country the third highest rate of fatal occupational accidents. This means that, should the Soma death toll remain at 301, it would reach only the number of workplace deaths that occur in Turkey every three months in a typical year.
Workplace deaths have been cynically written off as the cost of doing business in Turkey. But, as the number of people killed on the job continues to mount, more and more Turkish workers are unwilling to accept workplace endangerment as destiny. A broad coalition of concerned citizens has joined the push for political solutions.
Protests rocked Istanbul after three workers died during the construction of the AKP-championed third bridge over the Bosporus strait. Demonstrators shouted, according to news reports, “This is not an accident, it’s a murder!”
The rallying cry can now be heard across the country in response to Soma, creating a space to interrogate the government’s complicity in cutting corners in pursuit of profits.
Despite the government’s criminalization of trade unionizing and efforts to undermine organized labor, we are starting to see hope that things can change. The Soma mine explosion is just the latest iteration of AKP hubris, adding to the broad coalition of Turkish population taking to the streets for a change of leadership. It is time for the international community to see beyond economic growth records and hear the voices from below for labor rights protection.
Filiz Kahraman is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Washington political science department and a graduate fellow in Comparative Law and Society Studies.