After days of pulling bodies from the ruptured earth, the death toll of the Turkish mine disaster in Soma has plateaued at 301. With their masked faces frozen in agony, their crumpled photographs clutched in the fists of loved ones, the workers and their struggles have become far more visible in death than they were in life.
The names have been accounted for, but not the catastrophe that befell them. What was originally suspected to be an electrical fire was later described by experts as a massive industrial explosion precipitated by long-term negligence, not a mere technical malfunction.
Whatever the exact cause, the government seems committed to avoiding blame. Defying workers’ accounts of horrific safety conditions, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stoked outrage by coldly citing mining accidents of nineteenth-century England and suggesting that such tragedies were “usual.” The mine operator, Soma Holding, claimed the company was not obligated to provide workers with an emergency shelter, insinuating that workers were personally responsible for failing to escape on their own. (According to Today’s Zaman, Turkey is one of just a few countries without such a shelter requirement.)
Erdogan’s government finally responded to international condemnation for the handling of the disaster with a slew of arrests this weekend, including several company officials. But the massive protests that have exploded in several cities may prove difficult to quell any time soon.
In a statement issued on May 15, the day of the strikes, leaders of the progressive Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (TÜRK-İŞ) decried not only the safety failure but systemic labor violations pervading the mining sector, including precarious subcontract work, union-busting and “workplace murders.”
As the body count climbed, fierce tear-gas-laden demonstrations, clashes with police and mass arrests sprung up in Soma and Izmir. Students at Istanbul Technical University staged an occupation of the mining department, protesting the faculty’s connections with Soma Holding.