Labor Unrest Follows Turkey’s Deadliest Mine Disaster

Turkey’s labor unions went on strike today after at least 282 people died in the nation’s worst mine accident, which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said was “part of the nature of the business.”

Rescue workers, battling flames and methane gas, recovered eight more bodies from the mine in the western town of Soma today, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told reporters in Soma. More than 70 miners may still be trapped inside the mine, officials said.

Erdogan, who visited the site to console families of the miners, compared the accident to mining tragedies stretching back to the 19th century. Turkey’s major labor unions declared a walkout today to protest inadequate safety measures and protesters swarmed around Erdogan’s car during his visit.

“This mine was determined to be successful in meeting health and safety standards at the end of March,” Erdogan said yesterday, reeling off a list of other such disasters across the world, starting with an accident in England which he said left 204 people dead in 1862. “These are ordinary things. Look, there is a thing in literature called work accident. It happens in other work places, too. It happened here as well.”

Murder

Vedat Unal, secretary-general of Turkey’s Miners Union, said the accident amounted to an act of murder. “This can’t be explained with examples from the 19th century,” he said by phone from Soma today. “The state must adopt and enforce better health and safety measures.”

During his visit, the premier at one point was forced to take shelter in a supermarket after the wife of a miner shouted at him saying “our heart is burning,” a video footage broadcast by Kanal D television showed. Erdogan turned his palms toward the sky and responded: “Our heart is burning as well, what can we do!”

The death toll in Soma has topped Turkey’s previous record of 263 miners killed in a 1992 gas explosion. The country has the worst record for workplace accidents in Europe, according to Turkiye newspaper.

Further stoking tension was a picture that purportedly showed Yusuf Yerkel, an adviser to the prime minister, kicking a protester during a visit to Soma yesterday. Yerkel, who confirmed he was the man in the photo, said he’ll make a statement today, BBC Turkish said.

Safety conditions at the mines in Soma were discussed in Turkey’s parliament as recently as last month, Ozgur Ozel, a lawmaker from Manisa province, where the mine is located, said May 13.

Ozel said a proposal to create a mine safety commission, which was backed by his Republican People’s Party and other opposition groups, was rejected by Erdogan’s ruling AK Party. Erdogan denied the accusation and said he won’t allow the opposition to exploit the accident politically.

Unrest also broke out in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, and police used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators yesterday. Crowds began gathering today in cities including Istanbul and the capital Ankara to prepare for more protests.

–With assistance from Ali Berat Meric in Ankara and Benjamin Harvey in Istanbul.