ISTANBUL // Thousands went on strike and police clashed with protesters on Thursday after Turkey's worst industrial disaster killed 282 workers and sparked outrage at the dangers of Turkey's coal mining industry.
As hopes faded for scores more miners still trapped underground after Tuesday’s blast, police fired tear gas and water cannon at around 20,000 anti-government protesters in the western city of Izmir.
Turkey’s four biggest unions called a one-day strike, saying workers’ lives were being jeopardised to cut costs, and demanding that those responsible for the collapse of the coal mine in Soma in Manisa province be brought to account.
Critics say a programme of privatisation in recent years has led to a drop in safety standards in Turkey’s mines, putting workers’ lives at risk and ultimately resulting in the accident in Soma.
"Mining is always dangerous," Mustafa Sonmez, an economist and columnist, said on Thursday. "Other countries have taken precautions to make it safer, but Turkey has not."
Turkey’s coal resources are estimated at around 15.4 billion tons according to the energy ministry. Of the 72.5 million tons of coal produced in 2011, 82 per cent went to thermal power plants which provide about a third of Turkey’s energy needs.
In some regions, like Zonguldak on the Black Sea coast, or towns like Soma, coal mining is the biggest employer. The Soma mine produces lignite coal for use in a nearby power plant. Privatised in 2005, the company employs about 6,000 people in the area.
The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, has sold off many former state-run coal mines in recent years, but insists that working conditions had not suffered.
Faruk Celik, Mr Erdogan’s minister for labour, said the mine in Soma had been inspected regularly and that no risks to workers’ safety had been found. Mr Erdogan said during a visit to Soma that accidents were in the nature of mining. “These things happen,” he said.
But critics say Turkey lacks modern safety standards. The Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey called the Soma accident “a massacre”. Turkey has not signed the Safety and Health in Mines Conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which includes safety measures for governments and companies.
The Hurriyet newspaper reported on Thursday that Turkey was one of only a few coal-producing countries worldwide that lacked enough emergency shelters for mine workers that provided water, clean air and communication equipment for victims of an underground accident.
The Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, a think tank in Ankara, said in a 2010 report that mining in Turkey was deadlier than even in China, a country known for frequent mining accidents. Based on figures from 2008, the report said that there were 7.22 worker deaths per one million tons of coal produced in Turkey, but only 1.27 in China and 0.02 in the United States.
According to the ILO, more than 1,000 people died in Turkey’s mining sector between 2002 and 2012.
The mining industry is not the only sector of the Turkish economy where fatal accidents are frequent. The ILO said in 2012 Turkey had the highest rate of worker deaths in Europe and the world’s third-highest.
In Soma, state inspections of the mine were perfunctory, trade unions say.
Turkish newspapers yesterday quoted miners in Soma as saying that company officials were tipped off whenever an inspection was imminent.
Mr Sonmez said mines were safer before privatisations because “profit was not the main focus back then”.
Anger at the disaster has swept across Turkey.
Along with the clashes in Izmir, police fired tear gas and water cannon on about 200 protesters in Ankara, a day after thousands clashed with police in the capital and in Istanbul.
Abdullah Gul, the president, said on a visit to the mine on Thursday that Turkey faced “a great disaster”, and vowed action to prevent further accidents.
On Wednesday, Mr Erdogan was forced to take refuge in a shop after a furious reaction from relatives of the victims and the missing.
Photographs of his advisor kicking a protester in Soma sparked outrage on social media.
It is unclear how many workers are still trapped underground.
Mining operators put the figure at 90, but reports from rescue workers on the scene suggest the figure could be far higher. Most of the victims died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
* With additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse