Social murder at Ereğli

The 41 deaths at the state-owned mine were not inevitable, says Esen Uslu. No, they were victims of social murder

On October 14 yet another horrible incident took place in Turkey’s Ereğli coalfield. A firedamp explosion killed 41 and left another 11 badly injured. Quickly on the scene, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan explained to media crews that mining is a risky industry and “fate” was to blame. Not, by implication, lax government inspections, nor the management of the state-owned TTK Amasra Müessese Müdürlüğü mine.

Sadly this is true to form. Since the early 19th century, the coalfields of the Zonguldak area on the Black Sea coast have seen what can only be described as successive acts of social murder.

In the early years, the shallow pits and tunnels worked by young villagers under the guidance of Serbian and Macedonian mining experts were primitive and prone to danger. That meant that by the second half of the 19th century the only method of finding workers was through the introduction of “compulsory work”, using the infamous Dilaver Pasha Regulations. Rosters of 13 to 50 year-old villagers were prepared, and they were employed as mule drivers, diggers/hewers, or shoulder/basket carriers, with a 12-day rotation. At the end of their stint, they were free to return to their villages to do agricultural work but had to come back again in 12 days. If any worker escaped or did not return in time, he would be found, beaten and made to do an extra day’s work as punishment. All this is outlined in a book by Donald Quataert.1

In the early republic era, the coalfield serfs were liberated when the Ankara government introduced new legislation which abolished compulsory work. However, coal production declined and, when World War II began, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) government decided it had no option but to return to compulsory labour. The National Protection Law of 1940 reintroduced compulsory work, which remained in force until 1947. The measures introduced were even fiercer than the original Dilaver Pasha Regulations.

A new gendarmerie battalion was formed in the region to ensure the ‘smooth operation’ and to hunt down and capture escapees. The brutal methods of the gendarmerie resulted in several deaths, and a general atmosphere of fear fell upon the entire Zonguldak region.

When multi-party democracy was introduced after World War II, the Zonguldak area voted for the Democratic Party, as a response to those oppressive activities of the state under the CHP. In 1957 the coalfields were nationalised and brought under a single administration, Turkish Coal Enterprises.

During the military junta period, a new state-owned company, Turkish Hard Coal Enterprises, was formed to run the Zonguldak mines: ie, the lignite operations were hived off. The Zonguldak coalfields were declared to be the private property of the Ottoman sultan or his pious foundation - a regulation that did not allow any other private land title until 1978. Even after that date, obtaining a title deed was a very tricky process until 2017.

But nationalisation did not solve the miners’ problems. It did, however, introduce a new layer of bureaucratic regulations, allowing those in charge to decide who was to be employed under ‘secure’ state employment terms. Political connections and religious affiliations were taken into account, when deciding who was to be employed. The managers appointed and protected by the politicians were no better than under Dilaver Pasha, when it came to health, wellbeing and basic rights.

Today the Zonguldak mines are operating at an overall loss, but proposals to close them have met with huge opposition, since there are very few other employment opportunities in the region.

In 1982 small-scale contracting and sub-contracting was introduced. The operators’ disregard for basic health and safety measures has been self-evident, and finding and retaining labour once again became difficult. Chinese companies and workers were brought in to dig new pits. Nevertheless, the private mining companies employ approximately 4,500 miners. Their annual coal production is almost equal to the production of the state enterprises, which employ 10,000 miners. Attempting to do the same work with fewer workers put huge pressure on the state managers, and they shifted more of the burden onto the miners, who did not have any effective trade union.

The politicians’ dirty work can be seen in hundreds of incidents. The head of State Economic Enterprises (SEE) during the Ereğli homicide had formerly been the manager of the Kozlu pit in 2013, when an accident resulted in the deaths of eight miners. He was put on trial and eventually found guilty - and sentenced to pay a fine! Meanwhile, he was promoted to SEE head, and his increased salary more than covered the fine. But the judiciary is very unwilling to proceed with trials. In Kozlu an earlier mining disaster killed eight miners in 2013, and the case has finally come before the courts this week!

The Great Miners’ March to Ankara in 1990-91 - 50,000 took part - was the high point of the activity of the Zonguldak miners’ union, GMİS. However, though many students rallied to support the miners, they were betrayed, left isolated, by the Türk-İş union confederation. Since then GMİS has gradually declined. The leader of the Great Miners’ March and chair of GMİS, Şemsi Denizer, was assassinated in August 1999.

Investigation and research into the conditions suffered by Zonguldak miners have been discouraged. Donald Quataert refers to the official archives, pointing out that the relevant documents were available to the public at Zonguldak - but after the publication of his book they disappeared! Back in 1947, following a disaster which killed 49 miners in the Kozlu pit, Turkish historian Cemal Kutay wrote an article criticising the Ereğli Coalfields Enterprise. He was arrested and sentenced to three months imprisonment and given a hefty fine.

Have things got any better? Do not expect much from the state, following the latest act of social murder at Ereğli.

  1. D Quataert Miners and the state in the Ottoman Empire, the Zonguldak coalfield, 1822-1920 Oxford 2006. This book, written by the late professor of Turkish industrial history, is the best source available in English.↩︎