Turkey welcomes mine safety laws

WHEN 301 miners died in a Turkish coal mine in May this year the world reacted with outrage, but really the disaster exposed what the industry had already known for quite some time: Turkey was not a safe place for coal miners.

Staff Reporter

A groundswell of anger swept through the country and people took to the streets to air their frustration, both with the company that owns the mine – Soma Holding, Turkey’s largest underground coal producer – and the government.

As a number of people have been arrested in connection with the tragedy and await trial, the government’s recent approval of several new labour and safety provisions has come as welcome news.

A wide-ranging Omnibus Bill passed on September 11 included several key changes that could revolutionise the mining industry, according to White and Case affiliated law firm Akol Avukatlik Burosu Istanbul-based partner Sebnem Onder.

“This was the reaction to the Soma accident, bringing in some changes to the labour law and social security law and most of them are related to the underground coal miners,” she said.

Under the provisions any underground coal mining company that employs more than 30 employees may not terminate employees without “reasonable grounds”.

What’s more, previously the law stated that only workers that had been employed for six months or more would be protected, whereas now the six-month requirement has been abolished.

As well as helping temporary workers who may work for only a few months at a time – a common practice in the country’s coal mines – Onder said the provision would also go far in improving working conditions and rights of subcontracted workers.

“Many of the companies, like Soma, prefer not to have permanent employees and prefer to subcontract,” she said.

“But because of what happened in Soma they’ve brought in some restrictions on subcontracting as well and said the owner of the works will have to monitor whether the workers of the subcontractors are paid.

“There’s an obligation now on the owner and if the employees are not paid then the owner is obliged to deduct the money that would be paid to the subcontractor and deposit the amount of money to the workers’ bank account. This is a major amendment.

“Subcontracted employees will also be entitled to annual vacation days as if they were permanent employees.

“Sometimes owners change their subcontractors and workers may lose their vacation days, so this change will try and prevent this happening as well.”

Onder said underground miners would now be entitled to an additional four days of leave, with immediate effect.

“What they’re trying to do is make it so subcontracted employees are treated as if they were a permanent employee of the owner of the work, regardless of whether they’re subcontracted or not,” she said.

A limit has also been imposed on the number of working hours for underground coal miners from 45 hours per week to 36 hours per week – or six hours per day – and overtime will be forbidden except in mandatory and exceptional cases.

“If they’re obliged to work overtime, meaning they’re exceeding the total of six hours per day, the overtime payment may not be less than 100% of their hourly minimum, which means they’re doubling the salary.”

Both the amendments to working hours and overtime will come into effect from January 1 next year.

The retirement age of underground workers has also been reduced from 55 to 50 with immediate effect.

This provision will also apply retroactively to those miners who died in the Soma mine who were aged 50 and over, Onder noted.

“For those who died in the accident, most of them were not entitled to a pension under the current social security law but with this amendment they will be deemed retired and their heirs will be entitled to a retirement salary,” she said.

“This amendment will be effective retroactively from the day the accident happened.”

Since many of the victims succumbed to toxic gas fumes underground, the government has also introduced a health and safety regulation to provide employees with a healthy and secure escape.

From September 24, 2015, all underground coal mines will be required to have oxygen masks and regularly refilled oxygen tanks located at stations throughout the mine.

This safety regulation will no doubt come as welcome news as the findings of a confidential expert report on the Soma tragedy to Turkey’s public prosecutor were leaked to the Turkish press last week, citing that the tragedy was “preventable”

Although details are not well known, the report was compiled from surveys and an investigation of the Soma site by a group of experts and has been submitted to the public prosecutor for review before the case goes to trial next year.

While Onder admitted all the new labour, social security and health and safety provisions would help improve working conditions in Turkey’s coal mines, the reality was that victims’ families would still be looking for justice.

“These will give them comfort that the government has taken action and that action is being taken but I don’t think this will be enough for the families who are looking forward to the conclusion of the trial,” she said.

And as miners adjust to the provisions, some may struggle to keep up with all the changes.

“We’ve heard rumours that some small and mid-sized mining companies are starting to sell their licences as the new requirements will be hard for them to adhere to and they’re unsure if they will be able to maintain their licences,” Onder said.

“Really some small companies may find it difficult to afford to keep up with these new, higher standards.”