05/16/2014 03:01 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2014

No Death Is Ordinary: Soma Work Massacre in Turkey


The recent mining tragedy in Turkey has cost hundreds of lives, and the death toll is rising by every hour. Many news outlets keep reporting this incident as an "accident," unwittingly attributing a fate dimension to what has happened. Labeling this tragedy as if it was a natural occurrence is ignorance at its best. When it is done by the authorities, however, it is a crime.

This tragedy is not an accident. It has been in the making for years, and its loud approaching footsteps concerned many activists and politicians. First of all, it is part of a bigger picture. It is no secret that Turkey has an abysmal record concerning worker security. According to a 2012 International Labor Organization (ILO) report, Turkey is the third worst in the world in worker deaths, and it has not signed ILO's Convention No.176 on "Security and Health in Mines." Second, the mine explosions and the lack of necessary security measures have become so disconcerting that deputies of all stripes have raised the issue on multiple occasions. For example, last year, MHP (the nationalist National Action Party) deputy Erkan Akçay submitted a proposal for the establishment of a burn victim unit in Soma, Manisa due to the volume of injuries. Ayla Akat Ata, a deputy from BDP (leftist Peace and Democracy Party) submitted another inquiry drawing attention to the "work murders" in Soma. Most recently, CHP (the Republican People's Party) submitted an official request to establish a commission that would look into the frequent explosions in Soma. Last month, the opposition parties in the parliament supported this request but the ruling AK Party rejected it.

The ruling party's attitude is not a surprise, as the Prime Minister himself is on record saying that "death is in the nature of mining" and later describing this tragedy as "ordinary." Then there is the former Minister of Labor and Social Security, Ömer Dinçer, who stated that the miners "died beautifully," referring to the assumed painless death due to gas poisoning. Certainly, this "beautiful death" consolation did not alleviate the pain of the victims' relatives. Given that nobody enthusiastically goes into those mines, this normalization of deaths came as an insult. It is also a shame that neither the company nor the authorities could give the number of those who died, because there were undocumented workers and even children in the mine. In short, this is more than gross negligence, and the reality is disturbingly simple. Lives were lost in those mines before, there were multiple warnings that pointed to a larger-scale incident, the government shot down the proposals that asked for the improvement of conditions, then hundreds of miners perished. This is everything but an ordinary accident. Death is not in the nature of the job, but it is the result of decisions conveniently not taken.

True, this is part of a troubling global trend. The Soma case is just another reminder that some lives are more expendable than others. The unchecked private sector will continue to prioritize profit over lives (the owner of the mine, Alp Gürkan, has once stated that the high profits from the mine after its privatization became possible because of "the unique private sector employment style"). Child labor, undocumented employment and de facto creation of a sub-human category that does not merit any decent working conditions are today's realities. As individuals, we need to problematize this structural violence before it manifests itself through hundreds of dead bodies and we should demand fairness from the business owners when the workers cannot afford to do it themselves.

In the Turkish case, however, it is not the attitude of business owners or even the scale of this murder that is truly terrifying. It is the reaction of the government. When crony capitalism kills hundreds of people, you expect to hear some sort of condemnation (even if insincere) from your leaders, a desire to inquire into the incident and an initiative to identify those who are responsible. When these leaders tell you to move on, describe hundreds of deaths as "ordinary" on the day of the tragedy and continue brutalizing the grieving protestors, you ask at what level of profit your own life will be expendable. The government, which shows its full might when it comes to demonstrations and student protests, does not lift its finger to inquire into the deaths of hundreds or to prevent future tragedies. Apparently, some deaths need to be ordinary for others to reign -- this hypocrisy is "in the nature of the job."