The deaths of 11 workers in their “dormitory tents” following a fire at one of İstanbul's rapidly rising construction sites on Sunday has once again raised questions about Turkey's failure to ensure employees work in safe and healthy conditions, with observers accusing the government and employers of negligence.
Turkey's track record on job safety is already bleak: According to data from the International Labor Organization (ILO), Turkey ranked 80th in terms of job safety in 2009. Data from the Social Security Institution (SGK) shows more than 1,430 employees died in 2010 in Turkey. The most tragic deaths of workers in the past year occured in separate accidents in Kahramanmaraş, Zonguldak, İstanbul's Tuzla, Ankara and Adana. A powerful explosion at a factory in Ankara's Middle East Trade and Industry Center (OSTİM) and the collapse of a tunnel in a dam under construction in the southern province of Adana were the most recent to leave heart-rending stories behind. But who is to blame, and why? Some blame the employers for unsatisfactory safety measures in workplaces, while others accuse the government of failing to fulfill its obligation to uphold the rights of workers [with effective legal arrangements] and encourage employers to meet expectations.
Speaking to reporters in Ankara on Monday, a depressed Faruk Çelik, the Minister of Labor and Social Security, said the fire was still being investigated and reiterated the government's commitment to protecting employees' right to work in a safe environment. A staunch promise to “do whatever is necessary” -- referring to anticipated laws regulating job safety -- then followed. The workers were staying in a large tent at the construction site of a supermarket in İstanbul's Esenler district and early reports said the fire might have originated from an electrical heater, noting the cold weather in İstanbul. Necmi Kadıoğlu, the mayor of Esenyurt district said they suspected the fire might have been sparked by a short circuit. Meanwhile one of the employers who worked at the same construction site where the 11 workers were killed, Bilal Tavşan, told reporters in İstanbul on Monday that the tent he lived in had three fire extinguishers but he “has no idea” about the one which caught fire. Cameras caught the rest of the workers packing their belongings to leave the tents.
The construction of the tent in which the 11 died also raised questions as to use of quality materials and a safe power infrastructure in workplaces. Abdurrahman Kılıç from İstanbul Technical University (İTÜ) says the tents should have been made of fireproof fabrics. He adds the employer should have established a safe electricity supply infrastructure at the construction site -- even if people live there only temporarily. Sunday's fire spread, burning down another adjacent tent.
Çelik said the government investigators were working to define whether the employer was responsible for the accident. “We are concerned that the construction firm may have neglected to maintain safe working conditions here…Whoever is responsible will be brought to account,” he explained. Çelik added that the İstanbul Prosecutors Office also launched a separate investigation into the incident. On Monday, police detained 10 people on suspicion of having acted negligently. The minister visited the construction site where the workers were killed later on Monday.
However, the minister's remarks, far from being satisfactory, have been interpreted as “a belated excuse.” Observers argued that promises to do better are not enough; instead, they let the government off the hook. Speaking to Today's Zaman in a telephone interview, Mehmet Altan, a Star daily columnist and academic at İstanbul University holds the government the most responsible for the loss of the workers' lives due to unsafe working conditions in Turkey. “It could be true that most workplaces disregard safety regulations and force their staff to work in unsafe conditions, but this will always happen unless you have deterrents in place … The government has, unfortunately, made no progress in this regard; it has even put the clock back on job safety.” Highlighting that Turkey is on the ILO's “black list,” Altan says the country has done “so little” to adjust to job safety regulations as part of the EU harmonization process. Joining Altan, Seyfettin Gürsel said a new, comprehensive job safety law should also increase the amount of compensation due to employees in the event of an accident at work. “Unfortunately we are living in a country where workers' lives are assigned very little value …we experienced similar tragedies in the near past; it is a pain that it still continues.”
Worker unions slam employers, government
The Confederation of Turkish Real Trade Unions (Hak-İş) President Mahmut Arslan said workers were made to work and live under unhealthy conditions, calling Sunday's accident “a shame,” adding, “Having workers live in tents in the middle of İstanbul is normal for Turkey.” Arslan blamed some employers unions -- he would not elaborate on which ones -- for objecting to the planned law after all these tragedies. Even harsher comments came from the Turkish Union of Engineers and Architects' Chambers (TMMOB). The union president, Mehmet Soğancı, accused the government in Ankara on Monday of “watching workers die” due to job safety negligence. Pointing out the deaths of workers in recent, separate accidents, Soğancı said workplaces should be banned from employing workers without being registered with the SGK. Türk-İş President Mustafa Kumlu described the deaths of workers due to negligence as “crime,” highlighting the fact that the government and the employers shared equal responsibility.
The owners of the construction site were not immediately available for comment.
A recent study by Mavi Akademi shows 172 work accidents happen in Turkey every day, with an average of four workers losing their lives and six left disabled on a daily basis. A major reason behind workplaces evading their responsibilities for ensuring job safety is that most of them are not registered with the SGK. The same study shows the highest number of work accidents happen on construction sites.
When reminded of recent similar incidents, ILO Ankara office director Ümit Efendioğlu told Today's Zaman in a telephone interview that they expect the latest accident to accelerate efforts to pass the law, adding, “The current job safety law was passed in 1973 and it needs to be updated.” She says enacting the law will not be enough to minimize job accidents in Turkey, highlighting that the government should also lead efforts to inform society about job safety. “As the ILO we are ready to do our part in these efforts. The anticipated law should be a comprehensive one, addressing all the potential drawbacks facing job safety in Turkey.” Efendioğlu also joined comments that illegitimate companies made things even worse. “The economy has shown such rapid growth and we have seen so many new businesses pop up in the past few years that the government has had difficulty in providing a sufficient number of auditors to monitor job safety in workplaces … Increasing the number of auditors could be a part of the solution,” she concluded.