Ercüment Çelik: Mining & Labour


Research Committee on Labor Movements (RC44)


Mining, Labour and the Future We Want


Ercüment Çelik

The Euro-America-centric discourse of ‘post-industrial society’ has dominated many sociological studies since the 1970s, as if this were the existing stage of the society’s development in the majority world. One of the consequences of this trend is a declining interest in studying industrial labour in major industries that are at the heart of economy’s development in many countries in the world. Against this current, astonishing developments in the last few years in mining, one of the first organized industries in human history, call for renewed attention to labour in this industry worldwide.

The struggles of mineworkers and their trade unions for better work and life chances are challenged by the neo-liberal policies of states and strategies of mining companies as well as by certain failures of the trade unions themselves. Given the mining sector’s importance for the economy, corporatist states are challenged to find ways to secure a sustained consensus on mining labour relations. With the so-called objective of investing in new technologies and modernising mines, many governments implement policies towards privatisation of mines, which have so far resulted in mass retrenchments of workers and worsening of employment conditions, as well as the deterioration of mining health and safety conditions (particularly in coal mining) and increasing damage to the natural environment and livelihoods in mining areas (particularly in gold mining). Mining companies in many countries follow a growing trend away from labour-intensive mining towards mechanisation, mainly because labour is seen as one of the major risks in key sectors (such as gold and platinum) losing revenue to strikes. They also increasingly follow global corporate strategies that entail transferring profits to international holding entities registered in so-called tax havens, thereby reducing tax revenues due to countries where mining takes place and increasing pressure on trade unions to scale back wage demands during collective bargaining. Trade unions in the mining industry are forced to search for new positions around privatisation and nationalisation of mines, between ‘market’ and ‘society’, between the ‘movement’ and ‘institution’ dimensions of their organisations, etc. Facing with these challenges, a switch away from the traditional, for decades the most powerful unions on the mines, to the new, more militant unions is being experienced. Moreover, an increase in the number of wildcat strikes are observed, which are more and more followed by a series of violent incidents between the police, security forces, the leadership of the unions, striking workers, and in mining communities.

The deaths (or killing) of the striking mineworkers in the Marikana area in South Africa in 2012 and of the mineworkers in the country’s worst-ever mining disaster in Soma, Turkey in 2014 can shed light on some of the abovementioned issues in the mining industry. Various reports show that in South Africa, one  of  the  most  naturally resource-rich nations  in  the world, the  mining  industry has undergone  major  turmoil  since  the beginning of the 2008 global financial crisis, which was escalated by the shooting of some 34 mineworkers by police at Lonmin’s Platinum Mine at the Marikana area. While the mining company was complaining about not to be able to reach its full-year production target, mineworkers were simply demanding a wage increase, with perceptions prevalent that the earnings which have been made in the industry have not flowed fairly to workers. One of the most important aspects of this case was that the strikes were associated by the newly established Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which managed to break the monopolistic position of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the historical representative of mineworkers, and one of the leading affiliates of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). While, the AMCU has become the biggest union in platinum mining, and making inroads to gold mining, the NUM lost thousands of its members and its stronghold over COSATU. It is widely reported that similar strikes at other mines across the country collectively made 2012 the most protest-filled year in the country since the end of apartheid. Furthermore, widespread calls for the nationalization of mines were raised by various politicians and organizations that saw democratic government’s ownership and control of   mining activities as a solution to poverty, inequality and unemployment in the country.

The death (or killing) of 301 workers at a coal mine in Soma, Turkey, caused by an underground mine fire, was the worst mine disaster in Turkey’s history. The mining industry in Turkey, older than 150 years, is well known by its poor mine-safety conditions. Official statistics record that more than 3,000 coal miners died in mining accidents from 1941 to April 2014. While the country erupted over mining tragedy, many blamed privatization and subcontracting in the mines. The Soma Coal mine, formerly a state-owned company, had been privatized in 2005 and since than was proud of decreasing the cost of producing coal from about $140 to $24 per ton. After the disaster in 2014 it became clear that this was at the expense of the lives of hundreds of mineworkers. Erinç Yeldan, a leading economist, calls the tragedy of Soma mineworkers as “a crime of peripheral capitalism” that operates through hasty privatization and forced imformalisation of labour. After the mine disaster in Soma, a large group of mineworkers has called for the resignation of officials from Turkey’s mining union, Maden-İş and renounced their membership from the union, which they accused of collaborating with the mining company rather than protecting the safety and rights of workers.

Labour in mining industry and the struggles of mineworkers for a better world would without any doubt continue to take part in shaping the future and the global sociology we want. At the Third ISA Forum in Vienna, Research Committee on Labour Movements (RC44) aims to generate a renewed discussion on labour in mining industry and explore challenges and prospects of mineworkers and trade unions in their struggle for a better world. The Session entitled “Mining, Labour and the Contemporary Struggles for a Better World”, organized by Ercüment Çelik and Andries Bezuidenhout will bring together papers that shed light on trade unions and state policy on mining – nationalisation (including resource nationalism) and privatization; trade unions and global corporate strategy; trade unions, mining health and safety; workers and violence in mining communities; mining communities, environmental movements and trade unions; and women in mines – trade unions and corporate strategies.



Celik_Ercüment - portrait photoErcüment Çelik is Board Member of ISA Research Committees on Labor Movements (RC44) and Social Movements, Collective Action and Social Change (RC48). He was affiliated to the Institute for Sociology and Global Studies Programme at the University of Freiburg, Germany as postdoctoral researcher and lecturer (2009-2015) and was recently awarded a research fellowship by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey. He is author of Street Traders: A Bridge between Trade Unions and Social Movements in Contemporary South Africa (2010), and co-editor of Global Knowledge Production in the Social Sciences: Made in Circulation (2014).


Banner Image:  Helmet on a banner with the names of the miners who lost their lives at the Soma Mine accident in May 2014. The families of the miners carried it with them over the course of the legal proceedings at the Soma court from April 2015 onwards. (Photo: CopyLeft Sendika.Org 2015.)

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