The archaic mine blast in Soma on May 13, 2014, which the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan could only account for byciting disasters from the Victorian England, has been under blazing spotlight in the world public opinion for days. The wilful neglects of the government that are beyond mere incompetence, with unspeakable greed lurking in the abyss behind the whole thing, as reflected in the mindless rejection, only a few weeks before the accident, of a motion tabled by the opposition on the alarming hazards of mining in Soma, need not be recounted here. Suffice it to note that the mining company had proudly declared to have reduced the cost of the coal per tonne to almost a sixth of the previous cost, and Erdoğan is known in his unique style of doing politics to have routinely used the mine to supply voters with free coal before elections. Nor do we need to go into the details of the heavy assault on the grieving mining town, widely covered in world media, starting with Erdoğan himself and his close aide, to be followed by teargas and water cannons callously used against protesting mourners, with even peaceful candle-lit vigils in places such as Istanbul not tolerated, while humanitarian lawyers in Soma were handcuffed and, simultaneously, a mullah brigade was deployed in the region to inculcate submissiveness and obedience in the locals.
Coal-mining began in Turkey in 1829
The sad truth is that the Soma mine killings have caused domestic and international outrage merely for the number of workers lost in one single incident, surpassing the last great explosion in the Black Sea mining town of Kozlu in 1992, which killed 263 workers. A 2010 report by the Economic Policies Research Foundation (TEPAV) describes Turkey as the deadliest country in the world in terms of mining accidents. The report discloses, using data from 2008, that the fatality per million tonne of coal mined in Turkey is 7.22. This is a figure that is five times more than that in China and 361 times in excess of that in the United States in the same year.
Indeed, the fatalities should come as no surprise since the data regularly collected by the International Labour Organisation (ILO)* betray Turkey as one of the top ranking countries in the world in terms of fatal occupational accidents. In a private study that uses a “fatality rate” calculated on the basis of the number of fatal accidents in a country per year in relation to the total employment, Turkey has an occupational fatality rate of 18.5, ranking 87th among 119 countries documented in the ILO data for the year 2001. Countries rating better than Turkey, with lower fatality, include Tajikistan (ranking 34), Kyrgyzstan (38), Georgia (39), Uzbekistan (40), Kazakhstan (41), Armenia (48), Albania (50), China (53), Algeria (61), Tunisia (68), Egypt (72), Yemen (76), Mongolia (77), Syria (83), and Pakistan (86). Although the figures are from 2001, the table nevertheless gives an idea about Turkey’s recent past on work-place fatality, not to mention the expert opinions in the matter that there has been little improvement, if any, during the past decade.
The total number of fatal accidents at work in all 28 of the European Union countries (about 503 million people) was 4,141 in 2011. This figure seems to be slightly higher in the United States (with 317 million people), where 4,628 people lost their lives in work-related accidents in 2012 (including 803 cases of violence and injuries by persons and animals). Whereas the number of workers killed in work-related accidents in Turkey only in the year 2013 was 1,235. In the same year, 2.3 per cent of all employed experienced accidents at work. The figures pale by comparison the number of victims in Turkey’s 30-year old civil war in the Kurdish populated Southeast, long considered to be the problem in the country.
Construction is a key sector in Turkey
Fatalities seem to occur through accidents mostly in construction and the related sectors. According to the latest statistics on Turkey processed by the ILO, dating from 2008, over 34 per cent of the fatal accidents are in construction. Most of the accidents in this sector are ostensibly to do with unsafe scaffoldings that are barely up to the modern standards. Although the regulations in Turkey pay a lip service to safety in work environment, as discussed below, safer scaffoldings are both costly and time consuming, hence considered to be dispensable given the factors such as speed and low cost that drive the construction business, which, incidentally, is the hub of Turkey’s own brand of rentier capitalism: there is virtually no industrial company without extensive investments in the sector, encouraged by the government as the engine of economic growth, the Turkish miracle. Registered construction firmsare said to number close to 150 thousand. This is about one firm for every 500 persons in the country. The state has its own construction bodies, starting with the massive Housing Administration (TOKİ) under the Office of the Prime Minister, which is in turn tightly linked to private companies operating in the sector, inevitably with overlapping interests. The result is a brazen disregard of the “niceties” in the regulations concerning safety in favour of what may be termed a mere statistical efficiency.
Boy in a protest march with his father
One extension of this, yes, “Victorian” mind-set on terrain is the cost-effectiveness that is promoted by sub-contracting (taşeronluk). Sub-contractors (sometime several of them at various levels in a descending order or in various sub-sectors) do not seem to be as firmly subjected to norms concerning work safety, and as a result responsibility for work-place safety practically dissipates. Legal cases involving work accidents stretch for years, and families are usually quick to reach a settlement with a token amount of informal compensation. With families choosing not to be an intervening party in criminal cases, ex officio proceedings are eventually either dropped altogether in a dizzying maze of procedures or contractors end up with a modest fine. An institution introduced originally as a dictate of specialisation in virtually all sectors, enabling the contractor to rely on unique services of firms in sub-sectors, sub-contracting in fact functions for contractors as an avenue of rentier income and for evading legal responsibility. An expert discloses that in the case of a specific construction tender she researched, she was able to dig as far as an eighth sub-contractor. The last sub-contractor, she notes, was one single worker who had set up a firm in his home taking on board one other person, a relative. As the profit margin goes down in the tender with the advancing layers in a chain of sub-contractors, the one that actually executes the work on the ground needs to be extremely cost-conscious to achieve profit.
Children as mechanics: an ordinary sight in Turkey
More harrowing still, a notable source of unshielded labour in work places appears to be child labour. According to the official data for the year 2012, close to 6 per cent (about 893 thousand) of all children form part of the labour force in the country. Up to 5 per cent (59 cases) of those killed in work-related accidents in 2013 were children between the ages of 5 and 17. This figure excludes 144 of the workers killed in the same year whose ages have not been documented.
Children also on construction sites
The labour regulations in Turkey, centred on Law No. 4857, dating from 2003, distinguish between two categories of child labour: (1) those at least 14 but younger than 15, having finished the compulsory primary education, and termed children (çocuk) and (2) those who are older yet under 18, termed youth (genç). Children in the first category qualify for what the law calls “light work,” provided that the work will not hinder either their physical and mental development or, if they are still schoolchildren after the compulsory phase, their continuing education (Article 71). And the second category child labour excludes certain forms of work normally carried out by adults. According to the same law, a Directive (Yönetmelik) of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security is to supply details of the work, working conditions and the work barred in both categories. For some reason, however, the Directory has come to create a sub-section under the second category. This section, introduced in February 2013, sees practically no difference between adults and children 16 and older, who are, as the Directive puts it, “graduates of vocational and technical schools and institutions” (Article 5, additional clause) under the Law on Vocational Education (Law No. 3308). Enacted in 1986, the Law on Vocational Education predates all of the subsequent and decisive developments in Turkey’s international human rights law on the rights of the child, with modifications effected in 1997 and 2001 that are merely cosmetic. At the heart of a public controversy presently following the allegations of a young (purportedly 15 years old) miner in the Soma mine, the Directive keeps these children “free of the limitations” that otherwise apply to child labour.
This is not the whole story. A third (though clandestine) category is constituted by those younger than 14, who are known to be forced to work in agriculture, industry and service sectors to contribute to the family livelihood. 18 of 59 children killed in work related accidents in 2013 were below the age of 14. The child labour in this third category, between the ages of 6 and 14, is estimated to be around 292 thousand. About 20 per cent of these children are said in a government report to be unable to complete even the compulsory primary education.
Soma rescue operation
The fatal state of labour in Turkey as outlined here has not really much to do with the formal regulations in force, signalling instead a much more formidable problem, namely that of the legal and political culture that conditions the implementation. The fact that Turkey is not a party to the ILO Convention on Safety and Health in Mines (No. 176), dated 1995 and in force since 1998, has been suggested by critics as a major normative crack that made the Soma disaster possible. Truth be told, the Convention is not a magic wand, falling remarkably short, on the contrary, of opening mining industries in states parties to international inspection the way basic rights and freedoms are sometimes scrutinised on site. What is more, out of the top five coal-mining countries in the world, only the United States and South Africa are parties to it. China, for instance, is not a party (alongside India and Australia), yet coal-mining appears to be five times more fatal in Turkey than in China. Finally, it is hard to see that this Convention covers discernibly more on essential points of labour safety in mining than the ILO Convention on Occupational Safety and Health (No. 155), to which Turkey happens to be a party. Adopted in 1981 and in force from 1983, Turkey is bound by this international agreement since 22 April 2005.
On top of all this, it needs perhaps to be pointed out that the very Turkish Law on Labour and Safety (Law No. 6331), legislated in 2012, covers on fundamental points the terms of both ILO treaties. Accordingly, the employer is under obligation to ensure the health and safety of employees where work is concerned, and this responsibility means first and foremost the prevention of work-related risks and adoption of “all kinds of measures,” including training and information supply. This obligation at once calls for “adapting the health and safety provisions to evolving circumstances” (Article 4a). The “safe rooms,” which the company that runs the Soma mine had previously stated it had to guarantee the safety of trapped miners for days, yet turned out not to exist, are clearly a requirement under this norm. The same applies to proper scaffoldings needed in the construction sector to lower the rate of fatal incidents. Ironically, the ILO Convention on Safety and Health in Construction (No. 167), from 1988 and in force since 1991, and to which Turkey is not a party for some reason, barely specifies the standards of scaffoldings to be used in the sector.
A more important treaty, which, again, the Turkish Law No. 6331 seems to incorporate almost fully, is the European Social Charter (Revised). This Council of Europe agreement was adopted in 1996 and has been in force from 1999. Turkey is a party since 1 August 2007. The treaty includes a right to just conditions of work (Article 2), a right to safe and healthy working (Article 3), and a right to protection of health (Article 11).
“Dad, don’t make me work on streets”
This treaty also specifies the minimum age for employment (15 years, light work is an exception) and the work that can be done by those who are younger than 18 (Article 7). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child also has a norm that prohibits the economic exploitation of children and sets a basic framework for suitable work when they can be employed (Article 32). This norm is, again, greatly reproduced in the Turkish Directive cited above, with the sole exception perhaps of 16-year olds ushered in in February 2013.
That is, the positive law, both international and domestic, does not necessarily lack the basic instruments required to tackle fatality and care-free exploitation of labour. Yet, the implementation, which seems to be underpinned by an informal and elusive set of factors, is a different story altogether.
* International Labour Organisation, set up under the League of Nations in 1919, is one of the most-respected inter-governmental agencies. 185 states are members (except for a number of micro-states, North Korea is the only non-member). The founding treaty of the organisation is part of the Treaty of Versailles, called the ILO Constitution, which has been subsequently revised through various amendments