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Opinion: Soma’s Lesson for Turkey | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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People react as rescuers carry a miner who sustained injuries after a mine explosion to an ambulance in Soma, a district in Turkey’s western province of Manisa May 14, 2014. (REUTERS/Gokhan Gungor/Depo Photos)

“Shall I take off my boots so the stretcher won’t get dirty?”

These poignant words symbolized the terrible mining tragedy that struck Turkey last week. Every breath of that injured miner—rescued from 437 yards underground—was of enormous importance for the Turkish people. It was a miracle that he escaped with his life.

His words, too, spoke volumes to the Turkish people. But did his country value him as much as he deserved?

Last week, the only thing anybody in Turkey talked about was the Soma disaster. It was the worst mining disaster in Turkish history. There were three days of national mourning for the 300 martyrs—but the reasons for the mine’s collapse have still not been revealed, which has got the Turkish people thinking.

Why did this happen? In earlier times, people might have immediately dismissed it as an “accident” and quickly forgotten it. But today, we ask if these miners, these valuable members of our society who make their living underground for low wages, are receiving the appreciation they deserve.

As the rescue operation continued, the company that owns the mine held a press conference. On that third day of the tragedy they described the safety precautions that had been taken and said there had been no negligence on their part. Yet that press conference revealed an unexpected fact: there was only one refuge chamber—the part of the mine that acts as an emergency shelter.

As it turns out, the mine shaft had been dug deeper in order to reach new coal seams, but they hadn’t yet dug more refuge chambers. For many in Turkey, that was unconscionably negligent—so they turned to government officials for answers. But the answer they got from the authorities was even worse: there is no obligation to build those life-saving refuge chambers at all. According to reports, only four of Turkey’s 400 mines have them. Even worse, refuge chambers are mandated in mines in all countries of the world save three: Pakistan, Afghanistan—and Turkey.

Turkey is not a signatory to the Safety and Health in Mines Convention of the International Labor Organization. Remember, Turkey is a NATO member and EU candidate state with a fast-growing developing economy—but it is very far behind when it comes to occupational health and safety.

Statistics about workplace safety in the country paint a tragic picture. Turkey is the second country in the world in terms of industrial accidents, and the first in Europe. A total of 1,308 miners in Turkey have lost their lives since 2000, and 10.4 percent of all industrial accidents happen in mines, according to the state statistics office.

We can and have revitalized our country by building new roads, new gas pipelines, new airports and new universities. But our country will never be developed and prosperous so long as we relegate the health and safety of our own people to second place. Nothing in this world is more precious than human life. It is true that every death happens according to the will of Allah, but He also wants us to take precautions.

One way to take precautions regarding the health and safety of miners would be to adhere to established international safety standards. If we wanted to be really careful, there are now completely automated methods of mining and, for example, coal—which was being extracted at Soma—can be mined using remote-controlled machines.

Turkey will not develop until we live by the kind of moral values shown by the injured miner who insisted on taking off his boots so he wouldn’t dirty the stretcher. Our country will only grow when we stop shrugging off such tragedies as just “something that happens” and take steps to prevent disasters. We will only be happy when we value every life—and if someone has to earn their living by working for low wages in dangerous conditions hundreds of meters underground, we obviously do not value their life very much. Turkey is well on the way to becoming a developed country, but first we must learn the lessons of the tragedy at Soma.