Thursday, 15 May 2014

In the pit

Like everyone else, I've been following the unfolding story of the disaster in Soma, where over 280 miners died this week. I've watched twin media narratives unfold. One of these is the conventional disaster story, the attempt to convince viewers that there might yet be some hope, that it's possible a miracle could happen and someone could be found alive, despite the fact that's vanishingly unlikely in a case like this and the relatives waiting out there could probably do without the added pressure of being urged to clutch at straws. The other involves exploring the political background to the event, the failure of the Turkish government to provide adequate protection to miners. But this is part of a bigger story that they still seem to be missing.

That story is one in which each of us plays a role, at least insofar as we might be benefiting from the global economic recovery. Because it is on the backs of people like the Soma miners that that recovery is built. We don't hear a lot about it but mining is one of the key industries driving the recovery and, when one considers how others depend on it, it might be considered that most important. It may be people in offices coordinating shipments, brokering deals and buying and selling stocks who are shaping economic growth, but it is miners who are putting their bodies on the line, and without them we could all find ourselves a great deal poorer.

I don't say this purely to celebrate the people who do his job (though it would be nice to see more of them get adequate wages); I say it as a warning. Because we've seen this before - in gold rushes, in South Africa's uranium rush, in the horror of what happened under the conquistadors at Potosí. Although we depend on miners, they often have very little control over their working conditions. When society is hungry for raw materials, miners end up being forced to take risks. There isn't time to manufacture and distribute proper safety equipment, and many pit owners don't care. Less care is taken with geological surveys. Pits are expanded into territory that those involve recognise as treacherous. Poorly trained newcomers are sent into working environments they are not ready for (and in some countries, too often, they are children).

In this situation, we can expect to see more disasters like that at Soma. Most of them will be smaller, involving 'just' injuries or  small number of deaths, and will not make the headlines. Many will take place in areas that the international media pays little attention to anyway, but they will happen. It is imperative, therefore, that pressure be put on governments and industry to ensure good safety standards in mines, with regular unannounced inspections. This is as much an issue for the First World as for the countries where most of the accidents will happen, because as consumers of internationally sourced products, we all have a responsibility to those who are working on our behalf.

Mining is an inherently dangerous profession and we cannot prevent accidents, but we can work together to monitor them and we can stand up for the people on whom our global economy depends. The Soma accident isn't just a tragedy to watch on TV; it's a wake-up call.