Much of the anger that has enveloped Turkey since the Soma mining disaster has been directed at the government. “Prime minister, resign!” shout the crowds of protesters marching all over the country. In Istanbul, the day after the blast, I saw a young woman with a coal-smeared face holding a placard that read: “So it seems coal isn’t free.”
Here was a cynical message that got to the heart of Turks’ anger. It referred to something deeper and more serious than the spectacularly botched PR job of the prime minister’s visit to Soma, his insensitive cataloguing of 19th-century European mining disasters, his alleged slapping of a Soma local, the use of force by riot police on mourning relatives and the absence of apologies, resignations or explanations.
“Coal isn’t free” is a darkly significant statement in today’s Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has made itself popular over its 11 years in power by declaring itself the champion of the masses and giving out bread, macaroni and coal to poor families – often in the run-up to elections.
At the same time, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has thrown itself into an accelerating programme of privatisation. While government spokesmen boast of the billions of lira generated by these sales, the party’s critics accuse it of selling assets cheaply and strategically to sole
bidders and failing to check on workers’ standards afterwards. A statement from the four main Turkish unions shortly after the blast accused the government of complicity, for even privatising “the safety supervision in the workplace”.
The Soma mine was sold off in 2005 and Soma Holding now pays royalties to the government in the form of 15 per cent of its coal production. The mine still technically belongs to the state, which guarantees it will buy all the coal it produces, giving every incentive to ramp up output while cutting costs. In 2012, the owner of Soma Holding, Alp Gürkan, reportedly boasted that he had reduced the cost of extracting coal from £77 per tonne to £14. This was achieved through measures such as making electric transformers on site rather than importing them. Miners also say that the company employed cheap technical specialists who were not union members and failed to replace outdated equipment. When asked why the mine did not have a refuge chamber, Gürkan replied that it was not required by law.
Two weeks before the blast, the AKP majority rejected the opposition’s parliamentary proposal to look into safety standards at Soma, saying that the mine was perfectly satisfactory: “God willing, nothing will happen – not even a nosebleed.” The energy minister, Taner Yildiz, visited the Soma mine nine months ago and branded it “an example for other mines in Turkey”.
Despite Erdogan’s claims that the disaster was on a par with almost any other international mining accident in the world since 1862, Turkey’s rate of mining deaths is shocking: seven lives per million tonnes of coal, compared to China’s one life per million tonnes. In terms of general workplace deaths, Turkey is the third worst in the world.
The Soma disaster has been compounded by Erdogan’s clumsy response to public anger and the AKP’s zero-tolerance approach to criticism. A Turkish lawyer, who asked not to be named, said: “What has Turkey become? It feels like living in a central Asian dictatorship. It feels like Borat.”
Alev Scott is the author of “Turkish Awakening” (Faber & Faber, £14.99)