Workers blame management neglect for explosions in Turkish firework factory

After a series of explosions at a firework factory killed four and injured over a hundred more in northwestern Turkey on Friday, the spotlight has turned from rescue efforts towards investigating how the incident happened and who is ultimately responsible.

While the Turkish public awaits the results of an Interior Ministry probe into the incident on the outskirts of Yukarıçalıca city in Sakarya province, media interviews with the plant’s employees have already painted a picture of a workplace with lax safety regulations and beset by general neglect by supervisors.

Duvar reported on Saturday that workers had warned supervisory staff that the facility’s pyrotechnics stocks were overheating - likely caused by the summer rise in temperature - but said staff did not listen. This interaction reportedly went on for four straight days prior to the blasts.

“The (first) explosion didn't happen during production, it happened in the back warehouse,” Duvar quoted factory worker Nuray Cihangir as saying to a delegation from Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). The CHP officials were visiting injured labourers at the hospital Cihangir was treated at.

Cihangir said she had been warning her co-workers for four days about the overheating products.

“There's no death in my section. I warned all the sections: ‘Don't put a carton in front of the door so we can get out any minute’,” she said. Cihangir added that her section’s foreman had also taken preventative measures to avoid a deadly situation.

Kesiban Yolcu, who had worked at the factory for 13 years, said that management did not listen to repeated warnings from employees.

“They were putting too much pressure on our work. The goods had to be made,” Yolcu said, adding that the factory workers did not have a union.

Turkish authorities detained the plant’s manager and two foremen in connection to the incident, state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Saturday.

A 32-year-old former employee, cited by his initials Ö.I., described to BBC Türkçe how he had previously worked with his wife at the factory for three months but had quit because they didn't feel safe.

"My wife and I worked in this factory for three months. From the moment we walked into the factory, every time we came to work, we were terrified of explosions,” Ö.I. said.

Ö.I. said the plant was a “live bomb” where workers who worked for minimum wage were not given safety training.

“There was gunpowder dust flying around in the sections we worked in. We actually got the job after the previous explosion, we knew it was too dangerous, but we needed the job.”

A Yol TV investigative report has said the fireworks factory, owned by Coşkunlar Havai Fişek Fabrikası, has had five incidents similar to Friday’s and a fire in the last 11 years.

In 2009, two different explosions killed two workers and injured another 37. In 2011, an explosion killed a worker and injured 10. In 2013, another explosion injured six, while in an explosion in 2014 another worker was killed and two were injured. In 2017, a fire in the depot area injured two more workers.

Another explosion killed two workers in the company’s Niğde branch in central Turkey in 2018.

Coşkunlar Havai Fişek Fabrikası is a member of the conservative Independent Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (MÜSİAD), which is known for its close ties with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party.

Despite its shaky safety record, the factory near Yukarıçalıca still continued its activities and found employees to work on the production line.

"Young people don’t work here because there are no precautionary measures. Only the needy go there. I was needy, too,” former employee Salih Çelik told BBC in an interview.

The factory management had fired Çelik, who lost his wife in the incident on Friday, after he complained about his colleagues smoking in the high-risk environment.

Another person who lost a loved one in the blasts, and was himself injured, called out the factory’s owners for cutting corners at the expense of worker safety.

"It's a war zone here. They were hiring workers without insurance at the factory, so we want this place closed,” the man said in footage by independent news platform Medyascope.

Government officials and journalists alike strongly criticised the explosion, pointing the blame at the factory’s owners.

Garo Paylan, a Diyarbakır lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, said the explosion on Friday was not an accident but the latest in a series of incidents at the site that amounted to “murder”.

“5 workers were killed and 100 were injured in the explosion that took place in the same factory recently,” Paylan said on Twitter. “They'll call it an accident. It's not an accident, it's murder!”

Turkish journalist Mustafa Hoş drew attention to a dinner hosted by MÜSİAD after the incident to support the association’s Sakarya head, Yaşar Coşkun, who is also a board member of Coşkunlar Havai Fişek Fabrikası.

“Workers die due to neglect at a firework factory in Sakarya and they host a ‘morale dinner’ for the boss… luxurious cars lined up back-to-back… it is like the (symbolic) summary of an era,” Hoş tweeted on Saturday.

While theories circulated into who was to blame for the incident, Rojava Network reported that an anarchist group calling itself the Children of Fire Initiative claimed responsibility for the explosions. The group had previously claimed a series of commercially targeted arson attacks in Turkey.