The Tragedy of the Soma Mine-Workers: A Crime of Peripheral Capitalism Unleashed

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Yves here. This post explains how the horrific mine explosion in Western Turkey, which has officially claimed nearly 300 lives as the death count continues to rise, was not an accident but the direct result of privatization and circumvention of safety standards. And unlike the West, where industrial and mining accidents are met with short-term sympathy but little if any real change in working conditions, protests have broken out, not just in the mine town of Soma but also in major cities. As Mark Ames has pointed out, American has airbrushed out much of the history of labor’s struggles for safe workplaces and better pay. Violence against efforts to organize workers was common. Henry Ford had a private army of thugs for just this purpose. The tragedy in Turkey should serve as a reminder of what has been won, and how fragile those gains are.

By Erinç Yeldan, Dean of the faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, Yasar University and an executive directors of the International Development Economics Associates. Cross posted from Triple Crisis

One of the greatest work-crimes in mining industry occurred in Soma, a little mining village in Western Turkey. At noon-time on Tuesday, May 13, according to witnesses, an electrical fault triggered a transformer to explode causing a large fire in the mine, releasing carbon monoxide and gaseous fumes. (The official cause of the “accident” was still unknown, at this writing, after nearly 30 hours.) Around 800 miners were trapped 2 km underground and 4 km from the exit. At this point, the death toll has already reached 245, with reports of another 100 workers remaining in the mine, yet unreached.

Turkey has possibly the worst safety record in terms of mining accidents and explosions in Europe and the third worst in the world. Since the right-wing Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed power in 2002, and up to 2011, a 40% increase in work-related accidents has been reported. The death toll from these accidents reached more than 11,000.

Many analysts agree that what lies behind these tragic events is the unregulated and poorly supervised attempts of a corrupt ruling government to push through hasty privatizations and a forced informalization of labour. The Soma mine itself was privatized in 2005. In the heyday of an anti-public sector campaign, the new owners of the plant proudly declared a decline in production costs from the US$120-130 range under the public ownership of State Coal Inc. (TTK) to US$23.80. It was not very long before it became clear that what actually facilitated this ‘miraculous market success’ was the determined evasion of safety standards. On that front, the president of the private company Soma Inc., Mr. Gürkan, was heard boasting, “You can ask ‘what changed in the mine?’ The answer is ‘nothing.’ We simply introduced methods of the private sector only.”

Over this process of “introduction of the methods of the private sector,” average gross daily pay of the miners hovered at 47 TL (approximately US$20), while the existing mine tunnels were extended from 350 m to more than 2.5 km. The dissolution of the Council of Public Inspection by government decree in 2011 was clearly instrumental in reducing the role of formal inspections to no more than friendly visits to the company headquarters, with no attention paid to the actual working conditions in the tunnels.

The tragedy is now referred to not as a “working accident,” but the crime of the century not only by Turks but also by the workers abroad. Mining workers in Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela had already shown solidarity by declaring one full day of work leave. In contrast, the half-hearted and tone-deaf speech of Prime Minister Erdogan nearly one full day after the fact, comparing the tragedy to the mining accidents in England and United States in the late 19th century—arguing that “mine accidents are normal globally”—sparked a wave of protests and clashes all over the country.

Despite all this local detail, one should not miss the global aspects of the Soma crimes. For what lies behind this ‘market-does everything better’ approach is the ongoing process of uneven globalization subjugating indigenous peoples of the world to the dictates of global value chains and the corporate profit motive. A recent report released by the Ankara-based think-tank TEPAV reveals, for instance, that deaths per million metric tonnes of coal mined are 7.2 in Turkey, in comparison to 1.27 in China, and 0.04 in the United States. Within Turkey itself, this ratio is reported at 4.41 in the public-owned plants of the TTK, in contrast to the private-sector average of 11.50.

With twelve sub-contracting firms engaged in Soma, the tragedy is a clear manifestation of peripheral “third-world” capitalism at its best, as the most polluting and hazardous industries are being shipped to the global sweatshops with poor regulation and fragmented, informalized working conditions.

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  1. allcoppedout

    turkey does a lot of stuff on the cheap with little concern for health and safety. you see big trucks hurtling about with bald tyres and crude industrial practices. buildings that would be condemned here, but built yesterday there – they have a word for this – gejukondo (thrown up overnight).

    So how did we end up competing with countries like this? Why did the real benefits of our post WW2 societies never spread? decent wages, reasonable legal and financial equality, safe working practices, provision for the old – where is the economics of this? hardly surprising we haven’t got much when behavioural economists can’t tell the difference between an apology and lying to save the company money – ho ho ho.

    1. F. Beard

      So how did we end up competing with countries like this? Why did the real benefits of our post WW2 societies never spread? decent wages, reasonable legal and financial equality, safe working practices, provision for the old – where is the economics of this? allcoppedout

      I’ll pull out Occam’s Razor and assert it’s because of the artificial distinction between capital and labor that government-backed credit creation allows. Otherwise, in order to achieve necessary economies of scale, business would have been forced to rely on sharing wealth and power with workers since stealing their purchasing power would no longer be an option.

      1. susan the other

        If socialism were only that fine. But it is still an aggregate of interests.

        1. F. Beard

          You call that socialism? Socialism is where the State owns the means of production. Justice would have resulted in roughly equal ownership of the means of production BY THE POPULATION ITSELF.

      2. jgordon

        Or alternatively it could be as Marx pointed out, the inherent advantage of capital over labor gradually drains away the ability of labor to participate in the economic process, thereby collapsing the system after labor is sufficiently starved of the ability to consume.

        The answer of course is that all of this is totally bogus. All centralized economic systems and the economic theories/ideologies that go along with them are completely unstable and liable to collapse at any moment, for just about any reason. Anyone who thinks there are “truths” or “laws” with regards to economics (a make-believe subject in the first place) is seriously fooling herself. That’s why the original question and the presumptions behind it don’t make any sense, in reality. Things happen the way they do out of sheer dumb luck usually, and attempts to go back and rationalize/paste past events into theoretical economic models is a fool’s game played by fools.

        1. F. Beard

          Yes, capital has a huge advantage over labor but the question is why capital is not roughly equally owned since we all started out as labor? And the answer is, if the OT is a guide, is:

          1) Lack of periodic re-leveling via debt forgiveness (every 7 years) and return of family farms (every 50 years at most).
          2) Usury
          3) Government-backed credit creation since this favors those with the most equity at the expense of those with the least since it bypasses the need for the latter’s savings.

        2. RepubAnon

          Actually, Economics does indeed have a number of principles offering insight into these types of tragedies. For example, cost/benefit analysis: Consider a situation where the mine owner need not worry about being held financially responsible for injuries and/or deaths in the workplace. The owner won’t bother investing in safety equipment, because the workers (or their next of kin) can’t force the mine owner to compensate them for their losses. However, the owner will put in some equipment needed to keep the mine in operation, as down-time is expensive. Only if the mine becomes so dangerous that the owner can’t hire workers will the owner invest in safety equipment – and given the desperation of so many workers in extractive industries, this isn’t very likely.

          Economics also provides the answer: strong government regulation of mine safety, plus a system where workers injured and/or killed on the job receive compensation from the owner (i.e.: workers’ compensation plus liability for gross negligence.)

          Economics also tells us that mine owners will also use a cost/benefit analysis to determine whether it less expensive to buy politicians to change the laws rather than comply with them. Thus, we need laws limiting the amounts of money that can be donated to politicians, either directly through bribes, or indirectly through campaign contributions.

          Is the behavior of mine owners in this analysis immoral, bordering on psychopathic? Definitely. But, that’s what happens when income maximization is deemed the sole concern of each individual in a society.

          1. F. Beard

            In the Bible, the penalty for manslaughter is exile to a city of refuge until the current High Priest has died. If found outside a city of refuge, the killer could be legally killed. However, if negligence was involved in the death then the rule was “a life for a life.”

            In other words, blood money is NOT permitted in the Bible and even non-negligent manslaughter was punished with what could be a very long exile.

            When those responsible stand to lose a lot more than money then they will hold the lives of their workers as dearly as their own. Filthy money worshipers need to learn that money can’t buy everything or even the essential things.

          2. F. Beard

            I note with shame and horror that blood money is allowed in the US – so much for the claim that the US is civilized. Monetary compensation to the surviving family is necessary but by no means sufficient.

  2. allcoppedout

    An important question in disasters like Bhopal and this mine concerns how they turn us against unions so easily. Unions were not perfect and should have democratised so we could all be represented. Yet the way they were smashed and the ease with which fascist HRM spread along with financial engineering, demonstrates wide problems in public gullibility and selfish actions even within solidarity organisations.

    In mining there must be a world surplus of people who know how to run mines safely – yet it is obvious owners don’t want to hire. It’s cheaper to kill people. This mine passed its safety checks as surely as banks were declared healthy and prudent by regulators the day before they fell down, Some vile lying government bastard was on television here in total denial. Give them a bit of HO HO HO and they will be into disingenuous apology – though the Turks are still in denial of the Armenian genocide, the death march of 1915. Currently, they manage ‘it happened, but we didn’t mean it and anyway you guys are no saints’.

    So far, all we can note in the West, is that our Newsroom bimbettes and public are entertained more by Chilean deaths than those of Turks. I’d offer sincere and fraternal condolences except I have no stock price or other economic interest in doing so since reading Ho.

    1. F. Beard

      Labor cartels as a counter to a government-backed credit cartels have been circumvented by automation and outsourcing. Labor cartels were never the long-term solution; justice was the solution and always will be.

    2. James Levy

      We’re all in the coal mine. The problem is their Prime Minister, and yours, and our “leaders” here in the States think they are exempt, they are safe, they will be just fine and dandy when the temp goes up, the methane starts to seep, and the oceans start to die.

      Men once had no greater ambition than to set up dynasties where the fruit of their loins would carry on, to the endless glory of the Founder, for a 1000 years. Today’s rapacious elite don’t seem to think 1000 minutes ahead, and can’t have the slightest regard for their reputations or their progeny. The pathologies of our elite, starting with their depraved indifference to human life and desperate need to horde money and “win” at all costs, beggars the imagination. And it is our inability to imagine just how venal they are that will undo us.

      1. allcoppedout

        Chanting ‘justice’ proll won’t work Beard. Forming unions might lead us to the road, but some will need reminding of the wider justice that none should be left out. Only allowing lawyers to be chosen by sortition and lot might contribute.

        We may have missed something on short-termism. With enough money in the bank claiming rents why should anyone give a long-term damn about this business? The owners and managers have taken such massive returns one can only think they organised getting their money out long ago. We may have misjudged their long-term strategy

        1. James Levy

          Given ecological devastation, how can they have a long-term strategy? As far as I can tell climate change and peak oil are real phenomena. They’re now going after sour crude and bitumen because the “good stuff” is gone. Extracting and burning this crap will only hasten the ecological disaster ahead. I fear that these men have untrammeled power and no plan whatsoever beyond dying richer than Croesus.

          1. Lambert Strether

            Well, the 0.01% will go Galt on Mars in one of Elon Musk’s rockets. I hope it explodes and saves the Martians a lot of trouble. And the rest of us, well….

        2. F. Beard

          Chanting won’t work because social justice has been given a bad name by the Left who have substituted shoddy socialism and implicitly blaming the victims instead of true justice such as the return of family farms, gleaning rights, etc, But nonetheless, social justice is a MAJOR theme in the Old Testament and not missing from the New Testament.

          Some might argue that relative poverty is acceptable so long as the poor have adequate food, clothing and shelter and thus Biblical social justice has been fulfilled, at least in the West But:

          1) The Bible allows no such complacently since even theft from the rich is not acceptable.
          2) More and more absolute poverty is appearing in the West as we race to the bottom with the poorest nations.
          3) Poverty in the West is already absolute for those without land since family farms were owned by nearly all Hebrews and could not be permanently lost.

          My consolation is that justice is coming regardless but we’d be wise to settle out of court first.

          1. Lambert Strether

            Actually, I don’t think they substituted “shoddy socialism,” unless you mean FDR-style liberalism; at least in the present day they subsitute shoddy “identity politics” a.k.a tribalism.

  3. Wpaul63

    Been there, seen that – namely Ken Loach’s “The Navigators”…
    I encourage anyone who hasn’t done so to view this film (and generally all of Ken Loach’s great, working class films).
    These tragedies are totally avoidable – but we need to educate those masses of consumers who only look at their wallet’s best interest: these millions of individuals represent capitalism’s best ally.

    1. F. Beard

      Education is not sufficient; people do not shop at Wal-mart because they like to but because they are not affluent enough to do otherwise. Fix that and according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, people will be happy to pay more to avoid exploiting foreign workers.

  4. Christopher Dale Rogers

    As a shareholder and capitalist pig, I’m of the opinion that “shareholders” must come first, and if we cannot have coin, then we shall have blood – its that simple!!!

      1. Christopher Dale Rogers

        That’s exactly what the buggers did to us in the early 1920’s, well apart from the apology part of the equation – “Not a penny off our pay or an hour on our day.”

        Funny is it not, in the UK once the coal mines were nationalised deaths within the industry dropped dramatically, and yet we are informed that private enterprise is always, always better than nationalised industries.

        Once we start holding shareholders and management to account for these avoidable disasters and start actually demanding justice – which essentially means an “eye for an eye”- we shall have no change. How they sleep at night I shall never know, but surely enough is enough – still, you try explaining it to the buggers on the US Supreme Court!

  5. susan the other

    I am closely familiar with mining disasters. Ten years ago a coal mine in Price, Utah, a mine belonging to a company owned and controlled by Robert Murray – (or was it Murphy? No I think Murray as I think he also backed the absurd candidacy of Mitt Romney) – collapsed because they cut the ceiling supports as they tried to mine their way back out of the mine. The mine collapsed – as it did just months later in Chile where they saved EVERY miner with great expense – but instead of saving these American miners the company, dear Robert himself – claimed the miners were all dead without any such proof (as far as I could glean from the internet) and so the effort to save them was ended abruptly, a pious bronze plaque commemorating their valiant and patriotic efforts as miners was screwed into the mountain, and they were left to rest in peace. Long live America. Especially Third World America – the engine of capitalism.

  6. Lefteris

    So the Chernobyl accident was a crime of socialism, or an engineering error?
    Do you guys have any idea of the extreme austerity programs in the socialist countries and the almost non-existent safety measures over there?
    Unless of course you consider countries with almost half the corporate tax of America (Sweden, U.K., etc) as “socialist”, because they pay their professors 1/5 of what they make in the US in order to provide free education to a small population…

    PS. The number of accidents was so vast in the USSR, that the locals (some of them from various areas current friends of mine due to our heritage) considered them “a normal situation”. That they were never reported officially (neither was Chernobyl until the bad capitalists of the Scandinavian countries detected the radiation) and are not plastered on today’s internet, doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.

    PS2. Third world attitude is definitely assigning a political label on pretty much everything, probably including the recent train accidents in Canada too… pathetic for anyone over 15 years old.

    1. James Levy

      They pay their professors 1/5th what I make? My last year teaching, with overload, I made $74,000 bucks. So you are saying that in Britain and Sweden professors make $15,000 a year? Really? Back that up with some evidence, please, because I got my Ph.D. in the UK and nobody in the department was making anything like $15,000, not even the Junior Lecturer on contract (non-tenure track).

    2. digi_owl

      A crime of ambition as best i can tell. Sadly a human condition that no -ism can override.

  7. Podargus

    Coal is a filthy fuel,the burning of it is filthy and dangerous and the mining of it is filthy and dangerous,particularly in underground mines.
    While mechanisation and long wall techniques with modern safety measures have reduced the number of humans at risk there is always the problem of methane explosions.

    So,when 300 Turkish miners die there is shock and horror and rightly so. But that is soon forgotten when the next disaster occurs. Meanwhile the coal trade expands and the thoughtless people happily use electricity produced by burning coal. If we burn every accessible ton of coal we will be on the way to turn Earth into another Venus. On present indications we are well on the way to such an outcome.

    Meanwhile, the mere mention of the only practical and available solution to the problem of consigning coal mining and burning to history is derided by thoughtless and ignorant people.
    That solution has not killed anywhere near 300 people in its > 50 year history. But of course,in the ignorant and thoughtless lexicon,nuclear energy is too dangerous.

    1. F. Beard

      But of course,in the ignorant and thoughtless lexicon,nuclear energy is too dangerous. Podargus

      It all goes back to government-backed credit creation otherwise the Industrial Revolution would not have been (except for the pollution, perhaps) such a horror and thus no Communist movement and thus no Cold War and thus no nuclear arms race and thus no use of inherently less safe boiling water reactors and thus no nuclear hysteria.

      1. Podargus

        F.Beard, I don’t see what credit creation,government backed or otherwise,has to do with any of the events you mention,let alone nuclear energy.

        Boiling water reactors are an old technology and we have better reactors,either operating,under construction or in the experimental/proving phases.Nevertheless the old technology has served us well and is a credit to its designers, builders and operators.

        Mentioning nuclear arms and nuclear energy in the same sentence is usually an indication of an ideological anti-nuclear energy mindset. I stand to be corrected in your case.

        1. F. Beard

          Boiling water reactors were chosen because they produce plutonium which can be used to make nuclear weapons.

          Me? I’m for thorium reactors but solar clearly has a place too since Nature uses it successfully. Otoh, I don’t see Nature using wind energy to capture and store energy.

  8. F. Beard

    I don’t see what credit creation,government backed or otherwise,has to do with any of the events you mention,let alone nuclear energy. Podargus

    Reductio ad absurdum, do you think that if the industries, mines,etc. of the Industrial Revolution had been roughly equally owned by the workers of England that working conditions would have been so horrible? So why wasn’t that the case? Ans: Because government-backed credit creation allows businesses to avoid sharing profits and power with their workers.

  9. Ray Phenicie

    The tragedy is now referred to not as a “working accident,” but the crime of the century not only by Turks but also by the workers abroad. Mining workers in Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela had already shown solidarity by declaring one full day of work leave. In contrast, the half-hearted and tone-deaf speech of Prime Minister Erdogan nearly one full day after the fact, comparing the tragedy to the mining accidents in England and United States in the late 19th century—arguing that “mine accidents are normal globally”—sparked a wave of protests and clashes all over the country.
    We in this country could take a page from the Turkish citizens who are correctly outraged about worker safety. We have much progress to make; the Turkish nation has much to accomplish also. Every time workers in other nations are injured or killed because of an employer’s negligence, we in this country need to move out in front of our leader’s faces and let them know of the work that needs yet to be done. Meanwhile the situation in this country needs to be addressed with national strikes and marching out into the street. Until we do this we risk our own lives as well as those of other workers. No job in this country is as safe as it should be but we grow complacent about the issue and then react belatedly to crises.

    1. evodevo

      Good luck on that – here in Ky workers in coal country are firmly Teabagger in affinities and behind Mitch all the way. They have the same attitudes that Archie Bunker construction workers did toward Vietnam-era war protesters. We are now entering a new Gilded Age in this country – we’ll see how much the workers like that, and if they will rouse themselves the way they did then.

      1. FluffytheObeseCat

        Coal mining in the US employs few men, is largely open pit – meaning a good bit safer than underground – and is no longer a great killer of men. But, I wonder just how truly Teabagger the average guy is. In the open pit gold mines of Nevada, the loudest Limbaugh fans were commonly management and professional class people, not the truck drivers. I’m not saying the welders and drivers were liberal vegetarians in sandals, but, their taste for rightwing cock n’ bull was not as loud and flamboyant as that of the management, contractors, and technical staff with cubicles in the main office.

  10. John B.

    This tragedy was a long time coming. We all know that safe working conditions are not standard almost anywhere in Asia, Africa or Latin America. People die, because their lives are less important than money. What can we do? Probably not much from our safe homes in “civilized” world. I just hope that they take the fight to streets in Turkey and show once more that people will not support military & business style of politics.

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