Eser Karakaş
Dec 01 2018

Workplace fatalities: accident or murder?

One of the most important films of my youth was “Blowup”, translated to Turkish as “I Saw the Murder”. The movie came out in 1966, and was directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. It follows the story of a photographer who becomes involved in an unsolved murder. “Blowup” is based on a story by Argentinian writer Julio Cortozar. The film starred David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, and Jane Birkin. It was produced by Carlos Ponti, the former husband of Sophia Loren.

The murder, or rather murders, that I have witnessed are the topic of this article.

One of the important events in the news last week was the death of three workers who died in a mining accident that in a private mine in Zonguldak, a city on the Black Sea coast of northern Turkey. Unfortunately, this story did not get much attention from our illustrious press, and was instead overshadowed by stories of adolescent singers and actors.

Turkey has reached a frightening point in workplace accidents. The scariest part is that the annual number of daily worker deaths in workplace accidents is steadily rising. Five years ago an average of three workers a day died in accidents, whereas this number has increased to an average of five a day in 2018. People claimed that as the country developed and ushered in a new age, workplace accidents would decrease, but that did not happen. Let us share the valuable insight that “the reason behind the increase in workplace accidents is the nature of the sector itself”, and continue with the matter at hand.

In my estimation, the catastrophe in Zonguldak that resulted in the death of five workers is not directly related to the fact that the mine is privately owned, because regardless of whether it was operated by a private company or the government, there is no effective legal framework to enforce the precautions that need to be taken.

To answer the question of whether the event in Zonguldak that resulted in the death of three workers was an accident or virtual murder, the first place we need to look is the government’s Official Gazette article numbered 29,435 published on Aug. 4, 2015.

The article announced that the Council of Ministers had finalised a decision regarding the equipment and safety systems of underground mines on July 13, 2015. The decision stated that the implementation of safety precautions to prevent accidents and using equipment compliant with EU standards would be delayed until Dec. 31, 2019, in other words, until the year 2020.

When 2020 comes around, there will probably be talk of another delay.

Let’s also bear in mind that this unbelievable decision by the Council of Ministers was reached after the 2014 Soma disaster, in which a mine explosion outside Izmir resulted in 301 deaths. In other words, despite Soma, mines operating in primitive conditions are protected against workers, or - and please excuse the phrasing - death is protected against life. Why did the Council of Ministers reach such a decision?

If the issue were a lack of capital accumulation, the government could have supported this sector, which directly affects people’s lives, and in some measure saved the lives that have been and will be lost in these mines.

A villager from Yirca collects coal on May 11, 2015 outside the Soma mine in Manisa. (AFP)
A villager from Yirca collects coal on May 11, 2015 outside the Soma mine in Manisa. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC

I have an article saved on my computer, published in Vatan newspaper on Aug. 23, 2015. Written by Mert Nayır, the article, “Let’s pray that there are no mine accidents in the next 4.5 years”, summarises the issue nicely:

“First let’s share the news: the requirement to use materials and safety regulations in compliance with European Union Regulations has been delayed until 2020.

The Council of Ministers has reached a new decision regarding the equipment and protective systems in place in coalmines that are at risk of explosions due to combustible gas and particles, as well as the aboveground facilities of these mines. According to this decision, which was published in the Official Gazette, the equipment and safety systems in place in mines at high risk of explosions will be brought in line with ‘Instructions on Equipment and Safety Systems Used in Spaces at Risk of Explosion’ by December 31 2019.

“In summary, the mines that were shut down for violating these instructions, which were delayed overnight, will be reopened without taking any precautions. This means that the lives of approximately 200,000 workers operating 13,500 mines in our country are being devalued.”

After reading the Aug. 4announcement in the Official Gazette and Nayır’s related article, you are free to decide whether last week’s deaths in the Zonguldak mine were accidents, or murders.

Underwriting this Aug. 4, 2015 decision, which waived mining regulations for unknown reasons until 2020, are signatures of the member of the Council of Ministers.

I have to wonder: when our statesmen, who signed off on this decision, see news of these new mining accidents and of the workers who lose their lives, what do they think? How do they sleep at night?

My sole contribution to this issue, as an economist, will be to provide an economic analysis.

It may not be possible to bring mining deaths down to zero, but they can be minimised. For this, the government or private mining companies must invest in security precautions.

If these precautions are not taken, many workers will die; this analysis holds true not only for mines, but for all workplaces.

When workers die, the government or the private company pays damages to the family, as well as a small fine.

In the event that the damages to be paid to the families of deceased workers are much lower than the cost of investments that would prevent these deaths in the first place, the employer (either the government or the private company) will not make these investments, and instead pay the low cost of damages. The cycle of unsafe workplace conditions thus continues.

The biggest reason for the workplace accidents that now cost five lives a day is this horrific, inhuman calculus.

If reparations law were more developed, if deaths required larger sums in damages, if those guilty of negligence paid greater fines, if the marginal cost of accident/death were higher than the marginal cost of safety precautions, the workplaces (both government and private) would start to take these precautions, because these deaths would no longer be profitable.

This ugly calculus is unfortunately the fundamental reason behind mine accidents and other workplace accidents.

Everyone who reads the Aug. 4 2015 Official Gazette will see the murder with their own eyes, and needs to look no further.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.