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Turkish disaster mine ‘imposes a culture of fear’ 21 mai 2014

Posted by Acturca in Economy / Economie, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Guardian (UK) Wednesday, May 21, 2014, p. 21

Constanze Letsch in Soma

Miner claims cost-cutting overrides safety and at pit where 301 were killed. Veli Yilmaz, a coalminer in Soma for nine years, was shocked when his bosses, the owners of the pit where 301 workers were killed last week, told him he would lose his bonus – a third of his wages – if he took a day off to attend his sister’s funeral.

Over the past week, Yilmaz, who asked that his name be changed, has lost count of the funerals he has attended. Many of his friends were killed in Turkey’s worst ever mine disaster last Tuesday. Yilmaz is bitter and frightened, but not really surprised. The miners work in a climate of fear, he said. Intimidation is routine, and punishments and fines are meted out to control behaviour. The owners and the authorities collude in staged safety inspections, the workforce is told how to vote and the drive for profit overrides elementary safety concerns, according to the miner’s account.

« Work safety? There is no work safety. They cut corners wherever they can, » he said. « The foremen receive a bonus if we produce more coal than planned. So all they worry about is working faster and extracting more coal. »

Yilmaz’s list of grievances begins with the humdrum routine of going 400 metres down the pit every day. The company provides rubber boots and cheap plastic hard hats, but no gloves, he said. « If I want to use gloves I have to buy them myself. Since they rip very easily, I have to buy gloves almost every day. »

Since last week’s tragedy in Soma, north of the western city of Izmir, the government, mine owners, MPs and trade unions have argued bitterly about the mine’s safety record and the scrutiny of working conditions.

Yilmaz said that inspections do take place, but they are announced weeks in advance, allowing the company to correct misdemeanours, whitewash the working conditions and obtain a clean bill of health.

« We always prepared for these visits, cleaning everything, temporarily closing dangerous shafts, hiding faulty machines. In our mine, we are not allowed to use diesel-fuelled machinery. These machines were hidden away for the inspections. We were also instructed to tell them that everything was just fine, that we were happy. »

Yilmaz’s account is supported by those of other miners who have expressed their grievances to the Turkish media. International experts have also been highly critical of the mining operation in Soma and work safety in Turkish mines in general.

Matthias Stenzel, a German work safety expert and senior consultant with Issa Mining who has carried out inspections of several publicly owned Turkish mines in recent years, said there was not enough planning for mining accidents.

« Disaster situations have to be prepared in every detail. We urged Turkish mine operators to make detailed plans for such cases. They argued that such plans could be made when disasters actually happened. Emergency situations have to be practised. It’s no use explaining it only in theory. »

Yilmaz said safety awareness was restricted to « classroom lessons ». « Rescue education takes place twice a year. For six hours we sit in a classroom and look at a blackboard. There are no evacuation exercises, and no exercises inside the mine. »

A report by the Turkish Chamber of Architects and Engineers warned of major safety deficiencies at the Soma mines in 2010. « No production should be made before the necessary research has been completed. Carrying out production with lack of experience might lead to disaster, » the report said.

Five company officials, including the mine’s operating manager, Akin Celik, have been arrested on charges of causing death by negligence as part of an investigation into the disaster.

Turkish prosecutors confiscated company records showing that management ignored dangerously high levels of toxic gas inside the mine for days, according to media reports on Monday. Most of the 301 victims of the disaster are said to have died of carbon monoxide poisoning, as the gas spread quickly through the mine after an explosion.

Turkey has not ratified the International Labour Organisation’s convention on health and safety in mines.

Since 2005, the Soma Coal Mining Company is said to have received leases for state-owned coal pits worth 70bn Turkish lira (pounds 19.7bn). The firm’s owner, Alp Gurkan, insists it has invested heavily in safety, and told the Turkish media that the Soma mine was a « first class work place ».

Celik has said that all workers had « self-contained rescuers » that provide a certain amount of fresh air in the case of an emergency. Speaking at the first press conference since the accident, he rejected all responsibility. « There was no negligence on our side. I have worked in mines for 20 years, and I did not witness such an incident, » he said.

Yilmaz has been carrying around the same emergency mask for the past eight years. « I don’t know if it works, » he said. « If we open our mask without cause, they deduct 200 Turkish lira from our salaries. »

Soma miners earn between 1,300 and 1,900 Turkish lira a month.

Snooping on colleagues is also encouraged and the company runs a blacklist that makes employment in another mine impossible, Yilmaz added.

« The pressure is extremely high. Sometimes to contradict a superior is enough to be reprimanded. After the accident, the company forbade us to speak to journalists and outsiders about anything concerning the coal mines, » he said.

« We are just workers. Expendable. Those who get fired won’t be able to find work in a mine in Soma again. I have many friends who are unemployed because of this. There are no jobs left outside the pits. It’s all we have. »


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