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Dying on the job is not the destiny of mine workers!

30 July, 2014The Soma mine disaster in Turkey in May this year brought the daily horrors of mine workers toiling deep into the belly of the earth to keep the wheels of modern day life turning into sharp focus.

This industrial homicide entered the global public consciousness through the sheer numbers of the lives lost and the callous comment of the Turkish Prime Minister, claiming that it was the destiny of mine workers to die while eking out an existence.

It is often said that mining is a hazardous occupation. Despite the numerous precautions taken the harsh working environment does not lend itself to ideal cooperation. The tripartite structure of the ILO is challenged within the mining industry, which accounts for one per cent of global employment with 30 million people. At the same time, the sector accounts for 8 per cent of work-related casualties, making it one of the most dangerous professions.

On account of these horrifying statistics, mining, more than any other industry, requires constant and regular inspections and enforcement of safety measures. 

The chief culprit for the mine accidents is the industry’s preoccupation, almost obsession, with profit. The “race to the bottom” is obvious in the mining industry where the lives of mine workers is often sacrificed at the altar of profit. Statistics regarding fatalities, injuries and occupational disease do not tell the entire story; they exclude the extent of human suffering associated with mining.

In terms of methane related accidents, coal-mining is the most dangerous, because of the likely presence of methane. The toxic, asphyxiating gas can be explosive in high concentration. While the dangers of mining are self-evident, it is still surprising and shocking that only 27 countries have ratified ILO Convention 176 Safety and Health in Mines. Notable mining countries absent from the list include, Chile, the world's top copper producer, as well as Australia, Canada, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Turkey and Indonesia.

The roll call of death has the potential to numb the senses, as witnessed by the Turkish Prime Minister’s comment. If we fail to speak up and instead keep silent in the face of evil, this roll call will continue unabatedly. 

The ILO Convention 176 is central to achieving decent work in the industry. Within the convention, governments are expected to create a legislative and regulatory framework that protects workers’ safety and health. This is to be accomplished by requiring employers and workers to comply with the specifics of ILO Convention 176. In addition, the responsible authorities are expected to maintain adequate regulatory mine supervision and inspection, and require the reporting of accidents and maintenance of statistics.

As a response to the mine tragedy in Turkey and IndustriALL's work on health and safety in mines worldwide, a comprehensive and integrated strategy is required, including a comprehensive global campaign demanding ratification of ILO Convention 176 and the implementation of its recommendation. 

We need a strong health and safety culture in the mining industry across all levels. And such a culture will only come about through strong trade unions and strong collective bargaining. The stronger the union, the safer the mine - trade unions save lives.

Kemal Özkan,

Assistant General Secretary