Miners and local residents say privatization is at the root of the Soma coal mine explosion, Turkey's worst ever industrial disaster, because safety conditions deteriorated after the state offloaded the mine in 2005.
In the town of Soma itself, thousands of mourners streamed through the picturesque cemetery alongside coffins as mass funerals began. In the town center, several hundred protesters marched against what they said were government attempts to whitewash its culpability.
Anger was fueled by images of Yusuf Yerkel, an aide to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, kicking a protester who was being held on the ground by two soldiers as Mr. Erdogan visited Soma Wednesday. The man was reportedly a relative of one of the victims and was detained by soldiers after kicking the prime minister's car.
More than 400 people are believed to have died, although only 282 have been confirmed dead since a power transformer exploded, shutting down mining lifts and ventilation as a fire spread smoke throughout the mine shafts.
“Even if it hadn’t happened this week, it would have happened this year. Before this privatization, the government ran production slowly and the risk wasn’t as great as it is now,” says Mesut Karaca, who owned a paint shop in the town.
From 1984 to 2005, Soma Holding operated the mine as a government contractor, but it took full control amid the privatization push led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in 2005.
In an interview in 2012 with Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, the mine’s owner boasted of slashing costs after taking it over. Alp Gurkan, the head of Soma Holding, said that after taking over the mine, he reduced costs from between $130 and $140 per ton of coal to $23.80, “thanks to the operation methods of the private sector."
“When the government was running the pit there was less production, and when it was privatized the production went up, but the investment did not,” says one miner who worked at the site until recently. The man, who asked not to be identified for fear that he would be blacklisted from working in other mines in the region, said he had worked there for 10 years.
“There were 1,000 workers, but then we became 5,000 [after privatization]. We were using all the same equipment, the old equipment. If the electrical system cannot support that level of output, then you have a critical situation.”
Racking up safety complaints
However, Turkey’s mining unions have long claimed that the nationwide privatization program rolled out by the government in late 2004 caused a dramatic drop in safety standards.
“This mine was one of the largest sources of complaints that we received,” says Tayfun Gorgun, head of mining union Maden Sen, adding that 4,500 injuries were reported in 2013 alone. “The mine was privatized in 2005, and that is when accidents exploded in number. This isn't a mine where workers feel that their union represents them – many are unionized, but the union is run by board members of Soma Holding."
His comments were backed up by Ozgur Ozel, a local member of parliament for the opposition People’s Republican Party.
“In this region, the same people run the politics and the manufacturing, and the unions,” he says. He has been investigating the relationship between the government and the Soma mine and another mine in the region for a year and a half.
Earlier this year, Mr. Ozel spearheaded an effort by the main opposition parties to launch a parliamentary investigation into conditions at Soma and other mines in the area, but AKP used its majority to reject the motion last month.
“It’s very clear to me that there’s an arrangement made between them and that the labor conditions at Soma are a secondary concern in that," he says.
Today Turkey's largest trade union confederation, representing some 800,000 workers, joined in a one-day strike called by other unions to demand better conditions for workers.
Nowhere else to go
At the dilapidated mine itself, other workers are reluctant to talk about safety conditions. Those who do comment say they are satisfactory.
“We have electrical technicians in the mine, you will have to ask them about these things,” said one.
Soma Holding did not respond to requests for comment. Earlier this week it issued a statement saying that the "highest safety measures and constant controls" were in place at the time of the accident and added that an investigation was being launched.
Turkey's Labor and Social Security Ministry said the mine has been inspected five times since 2012, most recently in March. No safety violations were detected.
Hurriyet reported that 15 prosecutors have been assigned to investigate the accident.
But in a community dominated by the mining industry, young men don't have the luxury of rejecting work in the mines there because of safety concerns. And a shutdown of the mine to allow time for repairs could be financially devastating.
“We have to work here,” says Ugur Uckan, 22, himself a miner. He was waiting near the mine entrance last night for news of his brother, Hakan, who was among those missing. “We have no chance to work anywhere else.”