Soma reveals dire state of Turkish mining industry

Turkey’s most lethal mining disaster in Soma last week, which claimed 301 lives has highlighted the deficiencies in the mining industry, especially the “rödovans” system, a usufructuary tenancy which provides a license to mine for a certain period of time in return for a percentage of its profits, Turkish daily ‘Zaman’ reported.

In Turkey, mineral resources are state-owned and private companies are only granted temporary rights to operate mines and must pay a share of the profits to the state.

Rödovans meaning royalty was first introduced in Turkey in the late 1980s as a means to stop the continuation of unlicensed mining in illegal mines. The system became widely used during the 1990s, and was introduced into the country’s mining law by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in 2004.

The Soma coal mine, which is estimated to contain 18 million tons of reserves, was licensed by Soma Holding from Turkish Coal Enterprises (TKİ) in 2005 under the rödovans system which has been widely criticised for its poor safety records, since the beneficiary company does everything to keep costs minimal. Workers at the Soma mine testified that this was the case and media reports following the incident say that workers were, for the most part, deprived of even the most fundamental training on the dangers of working in the mine. They were also not educated sufficiently on occupational safety rules, which are extremely vital, particularly in such unpredictable work as coal mining.

Mining companies in general, force workers to work long hours with minimum break time in order to maximise revenue.

One of the few miners to talk publicly to the media about the event, Sefa Kökmen outlined the Victorian working conditions, saying they barely had time to eat lunch and that “They are nothing less than slaves.”

The rödovans system deters mining companies from investing capital in mines as this would drive up costs and impinge on its already-slender profit margins. Since license periods are generally short, large-scale investments are not feasible or reasonable for the companies, which will eventually return the mines to the owner, which is the Turkish State.

Turkish Mineworkers’ Union (Maden-İŞ) General Secretary Vedat Ünal believes that it is vital to scrap the rödovans system in order to prevent further casualties. “All mines must be owned from tomorrow onward by the state,” Ünal told Today’s Zaman in a phone interview, asserting that the Eynez mine in Soma, where the disaster happened, witnessed only one deadly but minor accident between the time it was opened in 1984 and when it was granted to Soma Holding in 2006. Accidents have escalated beyond control, resulting in countless deaths. Ünal thinks the defence of the rödovans system on the grounds that the state is inefficient at handling mining production is untrue. He references the Seyitömer coal mine, which was licensed a couple of months ago. “It was making profits. [The issue is that] these mines [are being] offered to certain businessmen on a silver platter,” Ünal said. If the rödovans system continues, the “mass murders” will also continue, he argued.

The State Audit Institution’s (DDK) mining sector report three years ago revealed the failings of the rödovans system, calling on authorities to take measures soon or face the consequences. The report underlined the lack of risk assessment; failure to draw lessons from past accidents; improvidently increasing production; insufficient measures against the risk of firedamp; irregularities in the drilling and blasting of mineral ores; carelessness in drilling inrush and control wells; not giving quality carbon dioxide masks to workers; shortages in fortification of galleries against collapse; and the failure to properly construct evacuation corridors, install ventilation and build rescue chambers. These were only some of the problems in the mines being operated under the rödovans system.

Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said in a speech on Tuesday that Turkey uses 102 million tons of coal every year and obtains 80% of this amount from local production. According to the TKİ numbers for 2012, 56 percent of domestic coal production is carried out in mines operating under the rödovans system.

Turkey has not ratified the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) convention concerning safety and health in mines that dates back to 1995 and entered into force in 1998 raising questions as to whether Turkey carried out its duty and responsibilities regarding the applicable international law.

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