* Opposition sought mine accidents investigation last month
* Turkey ranks third worst in world for worker deaths
* Pressure to cut costs fuels risks, opposition says
By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL, May 14 Opposition politician Ozgur
Ozel held a miner's helmet aloft in parliament last month as he
demanded an investigation into a spate of mining accidents in
the western Turkish town of Soma.
His call was rejected by deputies from Prime Minister Tayyip
Erdogan's ruling AK Party, whose overwhelming parliamentary
majority enables them to block almost every opposition motion.
Two weeks later, some 240 workers have been pulled dead from
a mine in the town and more than 100 remain trapped, a disaster
likely to prove the deadliest of its kind in Turkish history.
The opposition said it had only been a matter of time.
As images of soot-smeared survivors and grieving families
were beamed around the world, the accident threw the spotlight
on Turkey's poor record on workplace safety and on what the
government's critics say is its wilfully lax regulation.
"Our proposal was aimed at preventing accidents like this,"
Ozel, a local MP from the main opposition Republican People's
Party (CHP), told Reuters by telephone from Soma.
He blamed leasing arrangements implemented by Erdogan's AK
Party over the past decade, which allowed private firms to run
formerly state-run mines, for ruining safety standards.
"The only way to increase profitability is to cut down
costs," he said. "Workers' health, security and accident
prevention are seen by mine operators as expensive, invisible
and a burden. This is where savings are made first."
The Labour Ministry said late on Tuesday its officials had
carried out regular inspections at the Soma mine, most recently
in March, and that no irregularities had been detected.
The mine's operator, Soma Komur Isletmeleri, defended its
working practices on Wednesday, saying its staff were unionised
and all had insurance and social security benefits, and that its
site was inspected every six months.
But the firm has made clear its ambition to cut costs since
taking over the mine in 2005.
Soma Holding owner Alp Gurkan was quoted as telling the
Hurriyet daily in 2012 that his company had vowed to extract
coal at just a fifth of the price incurred by the state.
"Our engineers and workers didn't come from outer space.
It's just a matter of good planning and implementing the private
sector working style," he was quoted as saying.
He said the state-run Turkish Coal Enterprises extracted
coal in Soma at a cost of around $130-140 per tonne but Soma
Holding guaranteed it would extract coal at a cost of $23.8 per
tonne when it took over mines there in 2005.
Such talk had long worried workers in Soma, a closely-knit
mining district, more than a tenth of whose 105,000-strong
population is employed by the industry.
"We were feeling at risk after the privatisation. What they
care about is making more money at the end of the day," said
Hasan Dogan, 27, a relative of one of the men still trapped,
watching news reports in a canteen outside Soma's hospital.
"We have nothing to do but pray to Allah to deliver justice
to those responsible," he said.
Erdogan has weathered nationwide anti-government protests, a
corruption scandal targeting his inner circle and a public feud
with an influential Islamic cleric over the past year. His
ruling AK Party still dominated the electoral map in local
elections at the end of March.
But during a visit to Soma on Wednesday, he was publicly
heckled in a square as he toured the town. He dismissed the
opposition's call for a parliamentary inquiry and said such mine
disasters happened all over the world.
"These are normal things," he said. He reeled off a list of
mining disasters around the world since 1862.
Erkan Akcay, a local MP for the opposition MHP, said
Erdogan's AK Party had failed to heed warnings on mine safety
and that privatisation, subcontracting and leasing practices,
along with inadequate inspections, had caused a rise in
"The accident statistics in some private mining companies in
Soma are blood-curdling," he said in a statement on his website,
adding there were 5,000 workplace accidents last year in Soma
alone, 90 percent of them in mines.
"The responsibility for the deaths of our workers in Soma is
on the shoulders of AKP deputies now making statements on
television," he said.
Akcay said workers died an average of 8.5 times more
frequently in Turkey than in the European Union, of which Turkey
aspires to be a member. There were 880,000 work accidents
between 2002 and 2013, 13,442 of them fatal.
Workers' Families Seeking Justice, an advocacy group for
labour safety in Turkey, said at least 1,233 Turks were killed
in the course of their work in 2013.
In the mining sector, 61 people died in 2012, according to
the International Labour Organization, which ranked Turkey the
worst in Europe and third worst in the world for workers' deaths
that year. Between 2002 and 2012, the death toll at Turkish
mines totalled more than 1,000.
Turkey's deadliest accident to date was in 1992, when a gas
blast killed 263 workers in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak.
Another CHP deputy, Hursit Gunes, said the party would renew
its request for a parliamentary investigation.
(Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker, Ece Toksabay, Seda
Sezer and Ayla Jean Yackley; Writing by Daren Butler, Editing by
Jonny Hogg and Peter Graff)