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Star Comment: Rubbing salt in the wounds

TURKEY’S mass protests over the Soma disaster will surprise no-one who is aware of both the combativeness of the Turkish working class and the provocative oafishness of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan enraged the local community when he visited Soma and spoke complacently of mining disasters as “normal things.”

He said: “It happened here. It’s in its nature. It’s not possible for there to be no accidents in mines.”

The prime minister listed a succession of pit tragedies that have occurred over the past century and a half in countries such as Britain, the US, France and India.

The implication was clear — if they take place in those places, they can’t be avoided so just get on with it.

How any political leader could have expected to get away with rubbing salt so insensitively into the wounds of a community that has lost a confirmed 282 men — and possibly many more — defies credibility.

Anger erupted to the extent that he had to seek refuge in a supermarket to avoid answering to families who have lost their loved ones.

Mining disasters have indeed occurred in other countries and there are parallels between them that the Turkish PM failed to mention.

Britain’s highest loss of life in a pit disaster took place in 1913 at Universal colliery in Senghenydd near Caerphilly when 439 men and boys perished. 

The authorities passed this off, as Erdogan does, as sad but normal, one of those things that afflicts mining communities.

Just as an inquiry established that the owners of Senghenydd had ignored an Act of Parliament ordering mining companies to modify electrical equipment to prevent sparking, so a similar cavalier attitude to safety has cost the miners of Soma dearly.

The private company that runs the mine, Soma Holding, has reduced the cost of producing a ton of coal from £83.50 to just £14.30 since taking it over 2005.

Its chief executive Alp Gurkan said in 2012: “Our company or any other private company would not have entered this sector if we weren’t going to profit from it. 

“Our engineers and workers are not from another planet. It is just that a private-sector work model with good planning has come into play.”

Amid accusations that Gurkan’s company has cut corners in its profit drive, opposition MP Ozgur Ozel, brandishing a miner’s helmet, demanded an inquiry last month into the level of accidents in Soma. 

It was blocked by government MPs.

“Our proposal was aimed at preventing accidents like this,” Ozel said this week.

“Workers’ health, security and accident prevention are seen by mine operators as expensive, invisible and a burden. This is where savings are made first.”

Both the Labour Ministry and the company claim that regular inspections have detected no irregularities, but but this cuts no ice in Soma.

An indication of the closeness between Erdogan’s AKP party and the Soma Holding company is that general manager Ramazan Dogru’s wife was elected as an AKP local councillor in March.

After the 439 bodies were buried in Senghenydd in 1913, the colliery manager was fined £24 while the pit owner had to stump up £10.

Erdogan’s inclination will clearly be to emulate this classic injustice on behalf of his business friends.

Britain’s labour movement must stand with Turkey’s workers in their struggle for safety at work and justice for those who died making rich people richer.

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