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Turkish Disaster Shines Light on State Mining Ties 22 mai 2014

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie.
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The Wall Street Journal Asia (USA) May 22, 2014, p. 6

By Ayla Albayrak and Joe Parkinson

Istanbul – This month’s mine disaster roiling Turkey is shining a light on the ruling party’s close ties to the industry, with opposition lawmakers accusing the government of allowing companies to get away with lax safety standards and low wages.

Coal mining has helped fuel the robust economic development that bolsters support for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

But in the wake of the most lethal industrial accident in Turkey’s history, which killed 301 people in the western town of Soma, the opposition has accused the party of dragging its feet on an investigation less than three months before a crucial presidential election.

Opposition parties and unions said the AKP has made it a priority that privatizations go to pro-government businesspeople, rather than improving regulations. That allows well-connected mining firms to keep safety lax and wages low by international standards, they said.

The links between the government and mining companies, analysts suggested, have spawned government policy that encourages mines to produce as much coal as possible at a low price, irrespective of the risk to workers.

The government has denied those allegations and pledged a thorough investigation of the accident.

A parliamentary committee to investigate the mining disaster was set up Wednesday with the support of the four major parties after a heated four-hour debate, state-run Anadolu news agency reported. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said after the vote that the government was also discussing a possible settlement package for the families to « ease their pain and guarantee the future of their children. »

Tepav, a Turkish research center, said the annual number of miner deaths per million tons of coal produced is vastly higher in Turkey than in the U.S., and higher than in China.

« There is a symbiotic relationship between the AKP and coal, but the cozy ties have actually made the mines less safe and regulations weaker, » said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat now chairman of the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, an Istanbul-based think tank. « Now, we see a risk that the government will place all the blame on the mine’s corporate managers and absolve itself of any responsibility in this tragedy. That’s set to be the next political fault line. »

Turkey’s pro-government newspapers have carried pictures of Alp Gurkan, chairman of Soma Holding, which owns the mine operator, Soma Komur Isletmeleri AS, demanding that he be held accountable for the disaster. Mr. Gurkan hasn’t been arrested, but eight senior company officials, including the mine’s operating manager, have been arrested on charges of causing death by negligence. Mr. Gurkan hasn’t responded directly to the allegations and couldn’t be reached to comment Wednesday. At a news conference this past Friday, he denied his company had ties to the government and said he hadn’t visited the mine in three years, but insisted it had passed an inspection in March.

« Now we see the ruling party has loaded the company into the mouth of a cannon. But there is also political responsibility here, » said Engin Altay, a lawmaker in the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, in a speech to Parliament on Tuesday.

Turkey’s government has repeatedly pledged to conduct a thorough investigation and said there are « no loopholes » in Turkish regulations. « There is no attempt to cover this up or ignore these 301 deaths, » Huseyin Celik, the AKP spokesman, said on Wednesday.

In the 12 years since the AKP swept to power, most of the state-controlled coal business—which the U.S. Energy Information Administration said accounts for a third of electricity demand— has been privatized and bought up by party loyalists.

For years, the AKP has handed out free coal to almost two million families a year in low-income constituencies across the country, said Turkey’s official coal agency, TKI, a symbol of the party’s pledge to bring industrial development to poorer voters.

Soma Komur sells six million tons of coal annually to the government, around 10% of Turkey’s total production, based on an agreement in which the state agrees to buy all of the coal the mine produces.

Workers have said they have been forced to attend AKP rallies and many have said there is pressure to vote for the party. Melike Dogru, the longtime administrative chief at Soma and wife of the company’s general manager, is also the AKP representative on the Manisa city council, which governs Soma town. The company has repeatedly declined to respond to requests to comment.

« Everybody has to go, to take a party flag in their hand and wave it at the rally, » mine worker Sefa Koken said in a televised interview on Sunday.

The precise cause of the explosion at Soma isn’t known, with initial findings by prosecutors suggesting it was the result of spontaneous combustion.

Despite a series of warnings about the mine’s safety record, including a parliamentary question from the CHP in April, no steps were taken to address concerns over the mine. The government rejected the CHP’s parliamentary proposal in April to investigate security in the mines after a series of accidents.

Opposition lawmakers and unions have said that followed a pattern of the government pushing mine owners to provide increasingly cheap coal, a charge the government and mine officials have denied.

Turkey hasn’t ratified the International Labor Organization’s convention on health and safety in mines.

As the recriminations continued in Ankara on Wednesday, a small group of miners in Soma went back to work for the first time since the disaster. For now, many are nervous that answers may take a long time to come.

« We are expecting the government to interfere in this, » said Ali, a 33-year-old miner. « The pressure on producing more should be stopped. »


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