Union leader draws attention to increased occupational accidents in Turkey’s earthquake zones

A union leader has said inexperienced and low-skilled workers employed to move rubble in Turkey’s earthquake zones were falling victim to work-related accidents.

In a recent interview with the Gazete Duvar news website, Ahmet Sert, chairman of the TIMOSEN construction workers union, criticized authorities for the lack of inspection and supervision in earthquake zones, where there is currently intensive work to clear debris from the February 2023 earthquakes. 

The magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 earthquakes affected 11 provinces in the country’s south and southeast on Feb. 6, killing more than 50,000 people and leaving millions homeless. 

According to numbers shared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the disaster has generated between 116 million and 210 million tons of rubble, saying the area of rubble that needs to be cleared is bigger than Manhattan.

Sert explained that several construction companies were working in the area to move the debris and that these companies employed large numbers of temporary workers. However, workers without the experience and expertise to operate heavy equipment have experienced accidents that have sometimes resulted in fatalities. 

“A month ago, a colleague died in Hatay due to a work-related accident. Only a week before the incident I had visited the deputy governor, district governor and the Investment Monitoring and Coordination Center [YIKOP]. I told them about the risks that came with employing workers who don’t have experience working in disaster zones and with heavy equipment. But they preferred not to take the necessary precautions,” Sert said. 

He added that demolishing severely damaged buildings and operating machinery were dangerous jobs. Therefore, those workers who were responsible for such jobs needed to be thoroughly trained. However, many companies went against regulations and employed workers who did not have the necessary training certificates.

According to Sert, most of the workers in the area are low-skilled men, migrants and people with no options to work elsewhere. “Working in the region poses many health risks. Asbestos is one of the biggest problems, and the debris removal work itself is dangerous. Accidents can result in life-long injuries or death. As a result many skilled workers are not willing to work in the region, and companies employ workers who are not equipped to carry out heavy-duty jobs.”

Debris removal also necessitates specific types of equipment that is different from the equipment normally used at construction sites. Once again, in violation of regulations, companies do not make sure that proper equipment is used. 

“I have made the necessary complaints to the Presidency Communications Center [CIMER], but to no avail,” Sert said. “President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other members of the government are only concerned with the speedy removal of debris, without any concern for the health of workers in the area.”

He called on authorities for the proper implementation of regulations and better supervision and inspection of companies in the area. 

In a report published by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Turkey was named one of the world’s 10 worst countries among 149 in total for labor rights.

According to a yearly report by the Health and Safety Labor Watch (İSİG)  1,843 workers died in occupational accidents in Turkey in 2022.

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