the material culture of labour exploitation and resistance in Soma

For reasons that I’ll reveal tomorrow, this is the last of this kind of post that I’ll be doing, I think. I’m sure that all a few of them will still be too long to read, and that all a few of them will spend as much time discussing the background as documenting people’s struggles, but there won’t be (m)any regarding struggles over and through archaeology and history. They will (primarily) be about the looting and smuggling of antiquities from conflict zones…

So, here, I want to consider a place that the archaeology of life became the archaeology of death, and everyday objects became political symbols in an extraordinary struggle: Soma.

Crony capitalism

Bonded labour

Soma Coal Enterprises’ miners endured ‘bonded labour, only a few degrees from slavery’. The extreme profits of the $130 per ton-to-$28 per ton cost-cutting, government-aligned corporation, in a market that was created through the government’s privatisation of the industry, were ‘purchased on the hunched backs of a frightened and immiserated labour force working in a state of constant danger’.

In the privatised system, the state gives exclusive contracts to government crony corporations (kurumlar), which outsource work to corporate crony subcontractors (taşeronlar), who manage their teams through subcontractor crony head foremen (başçavuşları) and foremen (çavuşlar). One traceable example of the intertwining of money and power is a local couple – the mine’s Chief Operating Manager, husband Ramazan Doğru, and the governing party’s municipal councillor and district chair, wife Melike Doğru.

Bonded electorate

In return, the government gets cheap coal from the mine and gives free supplies to poor families. (It would be an admirable poverty relief programme, if it were not dependent on the parallel maintenance of other poor, insecure and physically endangered communities.)

‘Workers are taken to AKP meetings [government rallies] by force [under financial/psychological duress]…. Everyone is forced to applaud and to take a flag in their hands. [İşçilerin zorla Ak Parti mitingine götürüldüğü…. Herkes zorla alkış yapıyor, ellerine bayrak veriliyor.]’

Showing the political business relationship’s informal formality, mine workers can get hired through party offices; the Soma miners-turned-AKP activists have been told that the mine only remains open due to the connection between their bosses and their rulers; and the mine pays them for party work (astroturf activism). Naturally, in such circumstances, they are practically compelled to give their own votes to the AKP.

At the same time, known opposition workers (such as the anti-AKP Alevi miners of Kınık) are excluded from the operation, and thus from the supplement to their poverty wages.

Protection of corporations, persecution of workers and citizens

When a safety inspector has challenged a subcontractor, they have been blocked or ignored because they supposedly only have authority over the contracted corporation’s work, not the subcontracted agency’s workforce. When opposition politicians have made efforts to secure investigations through parliament, the governing Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) has blocked them.

During his visit to the disaster zone, Erdoğan denied that his party had blocked any opposition motion on Soma, even though the opposition petition referred to Soma 38 times, and the Turkish parliament described it as ‘the Republican People’s Party’s recommendation to investigate work accidents that have happened in the mine pits in Soma [CHP [Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi] Grubunun Soma’daki maden ocaklarında meydana gelen iş kazalarına ilişkin araştırma önerges[i]]’.

Since privatisation, there has been a 40% increase in deaths in coal mines.


On the 13th of May, disaster struck the Eynez pit. Years of regular methane leaks and fires, weeks of methane leaks, small fires and high levels of carbon monoxide suggest that there had been a persistent problem.

The workers had been unable to control the leaks and fires. The mine-controlled “yellow union” (sarı sendika) had not tried to challenge the corporation’s and the subcontractors’ recklessness (even though independent unions had long condemned the mine as unsafe and impossible to evacuate in an emergency). Hence, mine workers have called for the mine union board’s resignation and started to switch union.

The Ministry of Energy’s General Directorate of Mining Affairs (Maden İşleri Genel Müdürlüğü) had ignored the problems in its demonstrably inadequate safety inspections (while the Ministry of Labour had declared it unsafe), which were conducted by Labour Chief Inspector Emin Gümüş… who is the brother-in-law of Soma Project and Studies Manager Hayri Kebapçılar.

The fire started in a recently unsealed methane leak zone, which had been unsealed despite the dangerously high levels of methane. That fire triggered an explosion in the mine, and that explosion set the mine on fire. There was no safety refuge in the mine, and possibly no legal requirement for there to be a safety refuge (though national safety laws should supercede local industry bylaws). It is a miserable echo of the archaeology of unbuilt air raid shelters in London, reverberating off the walls of Soma Holdings’ all-too-built Spine Tower in Istanbul.

Popular reactions to the gross contrast have ranged from the acerbic to the exhausted. ‘Soma Holdings have erected this tower in Maslak, Istanbul, in memory of the civilian martyr miners! [#Soma Holding şehit madenciler anısına İstanbul, Maslak’ta bu kuleyi dikmiş!]’ ‘Soma Holdings’ operations… have turned its Spine Tower into a mine worker’s coffin. [[Soma] Holding’e ait Spine Tower’ı… şirketin işlettiği maden ocağı bir işçi tabutuna dönüştü].’

Soma Holdings' Spine, Istanbul, Turkey (via Ümit Akçay, Kriz Notları, 14 Mayıs 2014)

Soma Holdings’ imagined Spine, Istanbul, Turkey
(via Ümit Akçay, Kriz Notları, 14 Mayıs 2014)

'Soma Holdings' operations... have turned its Spine Tower into a mine worker's coffin. [[Soma] Holding'e ait Spine Tower'ı... şirketin işlettiği maden ocağı bir işçi tabutuna dönüştü.]' (c) Borealis, 13 Mayıs 2014

‘Soma Holdings’ operations… have turned its Spine Tower into a mine worker’s coffin. [[Soma] Holding’e ait Spine Tower’ı… şirketin işlettiği maden ocağı bir işçi tabutuna dönüştü.]’
(c) Borealis, 13 Mayıs 2014

Over the following days and nights, the situation grew grimmer and grimmer. Air was pumped in to prevent the miners being killed by carbon monoxide poisoning, but it equally fueled the fire that prevented rescue attempts and produced ever more carbon monoxide. Just 14 miners reached a room that allegedly had 20 days’ supplies for trapped workers. They shared the oxygen tanks a breath at a time, until they ran out. Their lifeless bodies were found laid one atop another.

Officially, there were 787 workers in the mine at the moment of the explosion: 363 escaped and 122 were rescued (so 485 survived), and 301 died; no, those numbers do not add up (although another source did count and name 486 survivors). That may be because they’re bullshit. There were undocumented labourers. The government rescue operation used oxygen masks to disguise corpses as survivors. Towns alone independently reported 321 funerals (and many of the miners had lived in villages). One makeshift morgue stated that it had cared for 346 dead (and there were several such morgues).

Indeed, one local altered the sign for the town: they crossed out its name and took the number of manslaughtered miners away from its population – but they subtracted ‘302+‘.

Soma has been crossed out and the number of manslaughtered miners has been taken away from its population. (c) Yağmur Yahşi, 16 Mayıs 2014

Soma has been crossed out and the number of manslaughtered miners has been taken away from its population.
(c) Yağmur Yahşi, 16 Mayıs 2014

Corporate manslaughter site, state crime scene and tomb

Physically blocking access to evidence of the crime that, due to the connections between the company and the government, may constitute a state crime, the entrance to the pit has been bricked up, apparently with some dead miners still inside. So now it is not only a crime scene but a tomb. It is a sad reality that, sometimes, not all lost bodies can be recovered. But this unceremonious emtombment is simultaneously the entombment of truth and any possibility for the mourning communities to come to terms with their loss.

'Entrance of the #Soma mine pit closed. There are still number of miners missing!    No respect for the dead either.' (c) RedHack, 18th May 2014

‘Entrance of the #Soma mine pit closed. There are still number of miners missing! No respect for the dead either.’
(c) RedHack, 18th May 2014

The sign over the pit entrance demands ‘work safety first [önce iş güvenliği]’. It is not an act of resistance. It is a remnant of the work culture, the corporation’s empty command to the workers whom it killed through its negligence.

While some of the most grotesque things happened underground, in the worst industrial accident corporate manslaughter in Turkish history, they were the worst events in an already dark history. As communities throughout the district were further scarred by the “industrial” production of cemeteries ‘like mass graves [toplu mezar sanki]’ for hundreds of unique family tragedies, the government managed to make matters worse.

'Defin işlemleri de başladı toplu mezar sanki. Mekanları cennet olsun.' (c) RobinK78, 14 Mayıs 2014

‘Burial works have begun that are like mass graves. Let their places be in heaven. [Defin işlemleri de başladı toplu mezar sanki. Mekanları cennet olsun.]’
(c) RobinK78, 14 Mayıs 2014

Adding insult to injury

The most shocking thing might have been that, at the same time as the tragedy grew inside the mine, outside, the government did not even make a show of denouncing the crony capitalism that had cost its own voters’ lives; instead, it psychologically and physically attacked the grieving families.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initially declared it ‘a great pain [çok büyük bir acı]’ for the entire nation; declared three days’ mourning for the ‘civilian martyrs [sivil şehit[ler]]’; wished the dead, the mourning and the injured ‘God’s grace [Allah’tan rahmet]’, ‘healing [şifa]’ and ‘endurance [sabır]’; and promised that ‘even the very smallest detail [would] be investigated [en küçük detaylarına kadar araştırılacak]’. However, he simultaneously dismissed the disaster, while its victims were still dying and their corpses were being carried out of the mine on the conveyor belt for its coal.

Listing comparable mining accidents internationally, the most recent of which was in 1963, the furthest back of which was in 1862, Erdoğan informed the grieving communities,

Please, let’s not say that these kinds of events, these incidents in coal mines, do not happen. These are normal things. In literature, there is something called a work accident. This isn’t something that only happens in mines [either]. It happens here as well [as elsewhere]. These are in the nature of the business. In mines, it’s not possible to say that there will never be an accident.

[Kömür ocaklarında bu olanları, lütfen buralarda hiç bu tür olaylar olmaz diye yorumlamayalım. Bunlar olağan şeylerdir. Literatürde iş kazası denilen bir şey vardır. Bu sadece madenlerde olur diye bir şey yok. Burada da olur. Bunun yapısında fıtratında bunlar var. Hiç kaza olmayacak diye bir şey madenlerde yok.]

And he warned against ‘extremists who want[ed] to abuse/exploit [istismar etmek isteyen bazı aşırı]’, which evidently included labour rights and safety campaigners.

Naturally, people recalled what Erdoğan had said after a similar tragedy in 2010: ‘A mine accident is a miner’s fate. Death is in this profession’s destiny. [Maden kazası madencinin kaderidir. Ölmek bu mesleğin kaderinde var.]’

Indeed, coincidentally, one of the traces of popular revulsion at their rulers’ approach had been shared shortly before the disaster. Çağlar Özbilgin (@caglarozbilgin) had photographed this graffito, which recorded the government’s persistent attitude: ‘You go inside for 5 lira an hour? If you don’t come out? “Fate.” [Saati 5 liray’a içeriye girer misin? Çıkamazsan? “Kader.”]’

Saati 5 liray'ya içeriye girer misin? Çıkamazsan? 'Kader.' (c) Çağlar Özbilgin, 4 Mayıs 2014

Saati 5 liray’ya içeriye girer misin? Çıkamazsan? ‘Kader.’
(c) Çağlar Özbilgin, 4 Mayıs 2014

Adding injury to insult

When Erdoğan visited Soma, he warned miner Taner Kurucan, ‘yuh çekersen, tokadı yersin [if you boo, you get a slap]’ – then gave him a slap. Kurucan was momentarily intimidated into protecting the prime minister: ‘The prime minister slapped me. The minders beat me. For the sake of protecting my family, in order for nothing to happen to them, I said otherwise. [Başbakan bana tokat attı. Korumalar dövdü. Ailemi korumak adına, onların başlarına bir şey gelmemesi için farklı konuştum.]’ One of the prime minister’s advisers, Yusuf Yerkel, repeatedly kicked a mourner, who was being held on the ground by two gendarmes.

Turkish PM's adviser goes on sick leave for injury to leg used to kick Soma protester (c) Agence France-Presse, 14th May 2014; Hürriyet Daily News, 19th May 2014

Turkish PM’s adviser goes on sick leave for injury to leg used to kick Soma protester
(c) Agence France-Presse, 14th May 2014; Hürriyet Daily News, 19th May 2014

However, even that was not as shocking as it should have been. On the 16th of June 2013, riot police and gendarmerie had blocked and repeatedly attacked the funeral procession and commemoration gathering for Ethem Sarısülük, who had been killed by Turkish police for protesting against police violence.(1)

Destruction of the symbols of the regime and the sites of its power

The community ran Erdoğan out of town, then ‘rip[ped]’ down the AKP’s name sign from its office, smashed and wrecked the front, and gutted the room(s).

Financial and physical constraints on resistance

People have faced repression for their resistance. The head of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (literally, the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Unions of Turkey (Türkiye Devrimci İşçi Sendikaları Konfederasyonu (DİSK))), Kani Beko (@KaniBeko_DiSK), railed against the system: ‘privatisation, the profit motive, subcontracting, inadequate work safety measures plus inadequate controls equal Soma; it is not fate, it is a work killing [Özelleştirme, kar hırsı, taşeronlaşma, yetersiz iş güvenliği önlemleri ve yetersiz denetimler = #Soma #KaderDeğilİşCinayeti]’.

When Beko tried to make a press statement regarding the tragedy in Soma, he was watercannoned without warning; it caused bleeding in his eyes and ears; he (temporarily) lost his sight and hearing and was hospitalised.

Labour precarity, unfair dismissal and consequent poverty had driven Soma’s safety manager, Sefa Köken, into silence; he had testified about violations of safety standards at another company’s mine in Manisa district, in a court case concerning a miner’s death in 2007, and had been fired; but the awfulness of the Soma disaster and the government’s repression drove him to speak out once more.

Eventually, 26 people were detained for causing deaths by negligence, of whom eight were arrested. Yet 36 people were detained for protesting against criminal negligence in Soma alone, including eight lawyers, who were arrested for trying to assist the victims’ relatives. It is unclear how many people have been arrested across the country. One police officer in Izmir dragged off and detained a crying thirteen-year-old boy, who wet himself in fear, though other police officers secured the child’s release.

Citizens have persisted in their struggle ‘against the regime of privatisation and precarisation [taşeronlaştırma-güvencesizleştirme rejimine karşı]’. (Taşeronlaştırma – literally, “subcontractisation” – is a technically legal method to institute the illegal privatisation of public goods.)

Sites of honour, memory, resistance and struggle

Early public acts of commemoration included laying carnations at mining monuments. Soma was quickly put ‘under siege’, in a ‘de facto state of emergency‘, which resembled the Law of Extraordinary Circumstances (OHAL) that was used during the conflict between the Turkish Armed Forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. One of the police’s emergency security measures was to block anyone from even approaching the statue.

Citizens assembled around statues of miners across the country to make their protests (for instance, at the Miner in Ankara, which was itself installed to stand for 100,000 miners who had marched on Ankara from Zonguldak in 1991, but been cut off by state forces at Karabük). Student groups held sit-ins at mining monuments (for example, in Zonguldak). Citizens’ photographs captured the moment when a tide of police flooded the site of the Miner’s Monument (Madenci Heykeli) in Ankara, which had been adorned with carnations, mining helmets and statements of protest.

Others left ‘a coffin covered with a black shroud [siyah örtülü temsili tabut]’ in front of the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources. Unions marched to say ‘no to precarious work [güvencesiz çalışmaya hayır]’ and carried black-shrouded coffins.

And, in a display that almost resembled the shoe protests of the Gezi uprising, where citizens who were not allowed to attend protests left their shoes in their place, mourners assembled around bread, ‘candles, hardhats and workboots‘.

Someone put a miner’s helmet on the commemorative statue to the first person to die in the Gezi uprising, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, and Kadıköy Municipality recorded and shared the protest.

For their football match with Kayseri Erciyesspor, Galatasaray redesigned the exit from the players’ tunnel to resemble the exit from the mine tunnel (and players came out in miners’ helmets).

'Galatasaray, TT Arena'daki sahaya çıkış tünelini Soma faciası için özel olarak tekrar düzenledi. Yarınki Kayseri Erciyesspor maçında futbolcular, sahaya bu tünelden geçerek çıkacaklar.' (c) Galatasaray S.K. (Al Jazeera Türk, 16 Mayıs 2014)

‘Galatasaray, TT Arena’daki sahaya çıkış tünelini Soma faciası için özel olarak tekrar düzenledi. Yarınki Kayseri Erciyesspor maçında futbolcular, sahaya bu tünelden geçerek çıkacaklar.’
(c) Galatasaray S.K. (Al Jazeera Türk, 16 Mayıs 2014)

And the public have been inscribing Soma Coal Enterprises’ status as killers (katiller) wherever there is a sign of its presence, whether that is in front of its buildings or on their TV screens.

Communist hacking collective RedHack offered ‘red solidarity [kızıl dayanışma]’ and redesigned the hammer and sickle as a pickaxe and sickle.

Students stencilled a line of lost miners across Çukurova University.

Sites of personal memorialisation and state silencing

The community could not even grieve in peace beside their loved ones’ resting places. After the authorities locked down Soma, using police, gendarmes and commandos to establish three lines of checkpoints that only allowed state officials, emergency services, miners’ relatives and certain others to pass, Islamist muftis were sent/allowed in. They left leaflets on the graves, which instructed mourners: “Fate and its realization is from Allah. Muslims must surrender to their fates.


Since state repression provoked further public resistance, two innocent people have been killed. Counting backwards in order to make sense, an unarmed man was killed, during a protest against an unarmed man being killed, during a protest against an unarmed child being killed, during a protest.

The grief-stricken neighbourhood, Okmeydanı, is predominantly and proudly left-wing and Alevi. ‘For a woman, for an LGBT, for a Kurd, for an Alevi, it is the safest and most just place. [Okmeydanı ama bir kadın için, bir LGBT için, bir Kürt için, bir Alevi için en güvenli/en adil yerdir.]’ And three of this conflict’s victims have come from this neighbourhood alone, so it feels especially embattled (it barricaded itself in when it lost Berkin Elvan and again when it lost Uğur Kurt and Ayhan Yılmaz); and it has even more intensely focused attention on the state’s treatment of minorities in particular and policing in general.

When a small group of teenagers protested against the deaths of Berkin Elvan, who was fatally wounded during the Gezi Park protests, and the Soma miners, they threw a (single) Molotov cocktail. The police attacked them with live ammunition, and shot Uğur Kurt, who was in the grounds of the neighbourhood cemevi (an Alevi house of worship), attending a friend’s mother’s funeral.

During the subsequent street battles, someone threw a fragmentation grenade, which fatally wounded Ayhan Yılmaz. The public was yet more enraged when photographs revealed the police’s utter lack of concern for Yılmaz as he bled out beside them.

'Where is the body of #AyhanYılmaz? Is  a forensic autopsy carried out? What is the result? #Okmeydani #Turkey' (c) Merlinka, 23rd May 2014

‘Where is the body of #AyhanYılmaz? Is a forensic autopsy carried out? What is the result? #Okmeydani #Turkey’
(c) Merlinka, 23rd May 2014

After a five-hour raid on the neighbourhood, police announced that they had arrested 38 members of banned organisations – 26 members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s Patriot and Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) and 12 members of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) – and recovered guns and explosives. And photographs had shown red-masked men with handguns and shotguns; they also showed Communist (DHKP/C), Kurdish autonomist (PKK) and Turkish nationalist (MHP) graffiti. However, it is impossible to trust the police.

Moreover, there may be a genuine need for self-defence. As the Alevi Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Association’s Secretary of Culture and Art, Uğur Bilgin, asked: ‘If we are not even allowed to bury our dead without being assaulted, how can we speak of democracy? How can we speak of peace?

At least some people might consider the armed groups to be ‘revolutionaries [devrimciler]’ or simply ‘the public providing security for [the public] [halk kendi güvenliğini kendisi sağlıyor]’, “self-defence groups” ‘[who] protect the public [halkı koruma]’ from the state. ‘People have the right to defend their own neighbourhoods!’

'Barricades have been established at the entrance to Okmeydanı. The public is taking security measures in the neighbourhood. [Okmeydanı girişinde barikatlar kuruldu. Halk mahallede güvenlik önlemi alıyor.]' (c) Gelecek Gazetesi, 23 Mayıs 2014

‘Barricades have been established at the entrance to Okmeydanı. The public is taking security measures in the neighbourhood. [Okmeydanı girişinde barikatlar kuruldu. Halk mahallede güvenlik önlemi alıyor.]’
(c) Gelecek Gazetesi, 23 Mayıs 2014


1: While the circumstances are murkier, because of the conflict between the Turkish Armed Forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Turkish state’s attacks on dead and mourning members of the Kurdish community form their own history. On the 7th of December 2013, Turkish police attacked a funeral ceremony for Reşit İşbilir and Veysel İşbilir, who had been killed by Turkish special forces for protesting against the state’s destruction of the graves of Kurdish rebels. On the 2nd of December 2012, Turkish police blocked a funeral procession for Kurdish rebels who had been killed by the Turkish army, thus provoked stone-throwing, then attacked the crowd with ‘tear gas, smoke grenades and water cannons’…

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