Turkey's illegal mining problem

Turkey ranks first in Europe and third in the world in workplace fatalities, with mining and construction the riskiest sectors for Turkish workers.

It has become nearly impossible for professional organisations, trade unions, and Turkish people to follow workplace accidents across the country, because they happen with such frequency and often go unreported. For the most part, the country’s unsafe working conditions are not mentioned in the news unless a worker dies -- as in the case of Turkey's 2014 Soma mine disaster, in which 301 people died. 

Since 2000, Turkish mines have experienced more than 21,000 workplace accidents, resulting in 11,000 injuries, including 3,000 workers left disabled, and 534 deaths (405 in state-run mines, 53 in private mines, 76 in unlicensed ones).

The northern province of Zonguldak is the centre of Turkey’s mining industry. Yet even there, the presence of the Turkish Hard Coal Authority (TTK), the institution responsible for monitoring unlicensed mines, can hardly be felt. The city’s chamber of engineers often calls authorities to shut down illegal, unlicensed mining sites, but instead they seem to multiply.

On Nov. 21, three workers died after an explosion in an unlicensed mine in Zonguldak, increasing the total number of miners that have been killed in workplace accidents in Zonguldak’s unlicensed mines since the beginning of the year to eight.

Vedat Didari, a retired academic and an expert on mining management, said that neither TTK, nor the Turkish Coal Enterprise Institution (TKI) had any master plans for coal production in Turkey, while adding that the conditions for health and safety at work should be monitored in a very disciplined way to decrease occupational injuries and fatalities.

“Unlicensed mines are a legal and social problem,” he said, noting that larger firms generally had better working conditions, while smaller firms increased the risks. “Inevitably, those firms sacrifice security and inspections and open the way for unlicensed sites. Unlicensed mines lack infrastructure. Ventilation and transport in those mines are carried out using very primitive methods.”

As a result, those sites do not effectively record and monitor the level of methane gas and its risk of  burning by sending samples from the mines to laboratories, which is what stops accidents.

Hüsnü Meydan, the deputy head of the Zonguldak Chamber of Mining Engineers, said that it was impossible to estimate the number of unlicensed mining sites in the province. In just one district, they found 90 unlicensed sites in 2018.

“We estimate that there are 300 unlicensed sites (in the province),” he said. “Illegal mining has become a sector in Zonguldak. When you close one, they open another one in another place.”

Erdoğan Bektaş, the recently appointed governor of Zonguldak, pledged in a late November statement to implement the law on coal mining meticulously to prevent workplace accidents. He promised Ahval he would look into the matter of unlicensed mines. “I do not know the exact number of coal mining sites,” he said. “Some say 200, 300, some say 1,000. I will investigate.”

Turkish Law on Workplace Safety and Health was adopted in 2012, but implementation has not had a significant effect on workplace fatalities and injuries. More than 2,000 workers died on the job in Turkey last year, a slight increase from 2016. Nuran Gülenç, the head of research in Turkey’s mining trade union, is convinced that for workplace safety experts to truly improve the country’s working conditions, they need autonomy in decision making and economic independence.

Kadir Tuncer, a retired mining worker who conducted a research on illegal mining sites, said that the working conditions in unlicensed sites were unacceptable, with 12- and 13-hour work days, a lack of proper equipment, safety lamps and gas measurement tools, underaged, inexperienced, and retirement-age workers, improper accident response and worse.

“The fortifications against collapse are weak, even a very low level of pressure can create a mine collapse,” he said. “If someone dies as a result of the accident, they pay some amount of money to the relatives of the miner, and cover up the accident.”

The real problem is high unemployment in the province, which pushes people to work in illegal mines, according to Erdoğan Kaymakçı, an academic in Zonguldak University’s Department of Mining. Shutting unlicensed mines will just leave more people out of work.

“As long as new opportunities for employment have not been created, those illegal sites will keep on attracting people,” Kaymakçı said.

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