Last week, a construction worker at the site of the 3rd airport in Istanbul was burned to death in his sleep by one of his co-workers. The relatives of the victim argued that the murder was committed with racist motives, since the worker was of Kurdish origin. The fellow workers and the site manager on the other hand said that the motive behind the crime was a personal conflict. Leaving aside the “tabloid” character of the event, it shed again some light on the many people in Turkey who die at their workplace. Fatal working conditions in the last year alone, have cost the lives of 5 persons a day.
Since 2011, the Istanbul based Council for Workers’ Health and Work Safety – a labor safety NGO - publishes monthly bulletins on figures of fatal working accidents on a local, regional and national basis. The council refuses to define the cases which end with the death of workers as “accidents”, instead it proposes to coin them as “murders” based on the fact that accidents are “unpredictable” incidents. However in almost all cases which end with the death of workers, these deaths were predictable, as it is widely known that existing working conditions, especially in mines, at construction sites, workshops and in the agricultural sector in Turkey are prone to fatal incidents. Yet, while the employers abstain from basic regulations to guarantee the work safety of their employees, the state is following an employer-friendly policy and fails to implement its own regulations and inspections.
Especially in the public sector, rules and regulations concerning workers’ health and work safety are often violated and responsible public servants do not stand trials. In a recent example, the court proved that the inspectors who were responsible for auditing the Soma coal mine in which 301 workers died in an explosion in May 2014, filed their safety audit without even entering the facility prior to the event. A proper, timely investigation, could have prevented the disaster. Nevertheless, none of the involved ministries granted the necessary permissions to investigate its civil servants.
Another factor that is driving the high death rates, especially in the mining and construction sectors is the rapid spread of subcontracting. It is based on the rationale that lower production costs can be achieved. Under these subcontracting systems workers find it harder to organize – limiting the influence of trade unions and companies can skip work place inspections – which only take effect, if somebody employs more than fifty people. The system also allows to increase working shifts up to eighteen hours a day. Since such contracts do not offer permanent positions, workers are generally more unqualified and inexperienced, many are children and/or retirees, working on provisional terms, who are expected to work long, fast and without basic workplace safety instructions and equipment. As a matter of fact, the highest rates of work accidents is registered in workplaces which are not obliged to have present Workplace Health and Safety Units, on-site doctors, medical assistants and occupational safety specialists, since they are employing less than 50 people. The rate of the workplaces with such scale in Turkey amounts to 98.04%.
The latest bulletin of the Council reveals that there is a steady increase in the number of work related fatalities in the last years. In August this year alone, 199 workers died. The death toll for the first eight months of the year was at 1.250. Most of the cases occurred in metropolitan, industrial cities, i.e. Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa and Kocaeli. The highest death rates are to be found in the agricultural/ forestry and construction sectors. The total numbers for 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012 were 1.730, 1.886, 1.235 and 878 respectively. In work accidents, Turkey is placed near the top both in Europe and the world. Concerning fatal work accidents, according to Eurostat figures, Turkey ranked number one in Europe even in 2012 -a year in which the figures were relatively low- followed by Italy (604) and France (576). In the same year, the numbers were 276 for Romania and 169 for Portugal, whereas Iceland scored 0.
For the last 3.5 years, the Council has also been keeping statistics of working children who die or get injured during work, including refugee children. Accordingly, since 2013 194 working children have died, the youngest of them being 6 and the oldest 17 years old. 31 of them were female, a ratio which doubles the female death rate among adult workers. The number of refugee children who died in employment lies at 19. The geographical distribution of the death cases overlaps with the sectoral distribution of employment: most death cases occurred in Adana, Urfa, Istanbul, Antep, Konya, with the agricultural sector having an overall share of 51%, followed by the construction sector, metal industry and textile production.