Turkey has experienced a double-digit growth rate for more than a decade. Construction and coal mining were the engines of growth and underwrote the success of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Now, after the tragic mine accident in Soma, the achievements of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party have been thrown into question.
Although Turkey’s mining industry has long had a grim record for health and safety measures, pressure from powerful trade unions in the 1990s meant regulations were tightened and all government-run mines—and there were few that were privatized—were forced to make upgrades.
Then came the wild profit-making years of the AKP. Most of the coal mines were either subcontracted or privatized in a government drive launched in 2004. The heavyweights of the AKP preached the argument that privatization of the mines would actually increase wages and provide better health care and security measures.
The horrendous disaster at the Soma coal mine proved once again that the mid-sized private-sector investor in developing countries actually has no incentive to improve safety. Alp Gürkan, the head of Soma Holding, which operates the mine, told Hürriyet newspaper: “Our business changed dramatically after 2005. The government-run Turkish Coal Management Inc. was making a huge loss. They decided to outsource and privatize some of their operations. The cost of extracting coal was 130 US dollars per ton under their management; we promised to lower it to 28 dollars per ton. This increased the government’s share in the profit as well. Let us not be fools. We all get into this to make money.”
Gürkan’s moneymaking logic needs no further explanation, but it must be stressed that the government was already a partner in this crime of ignoring safety standards and failing to impose penalties for infractions. Survivors in Soma have been telling stories of contracts forced upon them by labor unions that are friendly with the government, and of AKP machinery that provides employment to the villagers if they promise to vote for Erdoğan.
Özgür Özel, an MP from the opposition Republican People’s Party, Turkey’s leading opposition party, put forward a proposal in April to investigate safety standards at mines. His efforts were curbed by AKP members’ votes. There is a general feeling that there has been practically no government oversight in the private operations of Turkey’s coal mines.
Turkey’s unruly neoliberal employment and growth policies had devastating effects 460 yards (420 meters) underground on May 13, 2014. Policymakers and businesses may express condolences, but that will mean little to a grieving town that has lost so many of its hardworking men. Soma will forever be the symbol of Turkey’s unbridled greed and cutting corners for political success.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.