On Wednesday, as the full breadth of the Turkish coal mine tragedy became clear, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived at a press conference at Soma. The night before, a coal mine explosion had killed 282 workers, and hopes were quickly fading that the 150 remaining trapped miners would survive.
Erdogan had already discussed rescue operations with local authorities and attempted to comfort two crying women. The moment had arrived to deliver his assessment of the disaster.
“These accidents are things which are always happening,” explained the often-embattled politician who sued a journalist last week for retweeting a post critical of him. “Please, we should not interpret what happens in these coal mines as impossible. These are usual things. There is something called ‘work accidents’ in the literature. This does not only happen at mines, but at other workplaces too.”
What “workplaces” is he referring to? Try Britain. The Britain of the Industrial Revolution — 170 years ago. “I went back in British history,” said Erdogan, who’s expected to soon announce his candidacy for the presidential election in August. “Some 204 people died there after a mine collapsed in 1838. In 1866, 361 miners died in Britain. In an explosion in 1894, 290 people died there.”
“Take America, with all of its technology and everything,” he continued, according to the Hurriyet Daily News. “In 1907, 361 [miners died there]. These are usual things … In 1942, 1,549 miners died in China due to a mixture of gas and coal. Can you believe it?”
His comments struck many as off-key. “OMG,” tweeted academic Zeynep Tufekci. “PM Erdogan just said that there were 361 people killed in mines in the United States in 1907. 1907. … Erdogan citing statistics from China, etc. on how many people have died in mines. He just cited Japan 1963 and India 1965. Surreal.”
More surreal was the reported actions of one of Erdogan’s advisers, Yusuf Yerkel. In an image that has now been tweeted nearly 75,000 times, the brown-haired official reportedly kicked a protester “three or four times,” a witness told Hurriyet Daily News. According to that account, Yerkel saw a protester kick an official car belonging to Erdogan and allegedly retaliated with an “enraged kick” as the man was held down.
PM Erdogan’s advisor, Yusuf Yerkel kicks a protestor at Soma, Turkey where hundreds of miners are buried underground pic.twitter.com/niA0MRkGzL
— rabble (@wearerabble) May 14, 2014
But while critics say Erdogan’s comments and his official’s alleged actions conveyed a lack of empathy — if not disinterest — it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for the pugnacious prime minister. He said the same thing in 2010 after a mine explosion near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak killed 30. “The people of the region are quite used to events like these,” he said in a speech that sparked protests and scuffles with police. “This profession has this in its destiny. The workers get into the profession knowing that these kinds of incidents may occur.”
Erdogan is correct that coal mine accidents happen frequently in Turkey. According to state statistics collected by the International Committee of the Fourth International, 2,687 people died in mine accidents between 1955 and 2009 and an additional 326,321 were injured. Since 1983, more than 1,600 miners have been killed in Turkey, as the industry has rollicked from one disaster to the next.
“Turkey has the highest death rate from mining accidents in Europe,” the International Committee of the Fourth International states. “More than four times the European average and about twice the rate of Portugal, the second most dangerous state. Only China and Russia have worse records internationally.”
Death and danger are not the inherent “destiny” of miners around the world as Erdogan implies. In the past two decades, for example, only three miners have been killed in Germany, according to Turkey’s mass-circulated daily Posta. And that country produces more than twice as much brown coal as Turkey. In Britain, meanwhile, an average of six miners have been killed annually since 2007, Global News reports.
Turkey’s disaster, in fact, says less about the world’s mining conditions than it does its own deteriorating ones. Some miners’ representatives say the privatization of many mines, coupled with the surging number of subcontractors and increasing pressure to produce more with less, has pushed industry workers into a dangerous spot.
“Miners’ health and well-being are pushed to secondary importance when these mines are privatized or subcontracted, as their primary concern is only about making more profit,” one union spokesperson told Al-Monitor, a Mideast publication. “We remember the condition of mine workers on days like this. We have been trying to convince the authorities to improve the working standards … to no avail.”