The glory of Istanbul - safety-adverse

By bne IntelliNews March 13, 2012

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Eleven Turkish workers were killed on March 11 when the tent they where sleeping in at an Istanbul construction site caught fire. The incident raises questions about Istanbul's headlong rush to become a one of the world's financial and commercial capitals.

The fire occurred in the Esenyurt district of Istanbul, in a large tent serving as a dormitory for workers at the construction site of a new mall called Marmara Park. The workers were reportedly employed by Kayi subsidiary of the German ECE Company. Some of the workers reportedly died from smoke inhalation while others were burned to death. The tent adjacent to the one where the workers died also caught fire. Police have detained the construction site supervisor and work safety chief, along with nine others.

"We suspect that the fire might have originated from an electrical heater," Necmi Kadioglu, the mayor of Esenyurt, initially told Associated Press. However, the daily Hurriyet reported that Kadioglu later said that authorities believed the blaze began in the tent's kitchen.

Labor and Social Security Minister Faruk Celik was quoted by the English-language Hurriyet Daily News as saying an investigation will focus on how many workers were staying in one tent. "We are investigating the incident to understand the extent of negligence."

Capital plans

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) aims to reestablish Istanbul, home to approximately 17m people, as a global financial and cultural centre of the same stature that it enjoyed during the Ottoman and Byzantine times. International companies tend to agree with the view that Istanbul is an ideal base to run operations for Turkey, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. In the midst of the Eurozone debacle, Turkey looks a good bet to many investors - risky and in need of close monitoring perhaps, but better than so many other countries in the region.

Istanbul is one of the most dynamic and fast moving cities in the world. It is nearly impossible not be seduced by the pulsing energy that permeates the city and the sight of flashy skyscrapers being built among the minarets along the Bosporus.

The AKP is doing all that it can to retain that perspective and portray Istanbul as the ideal hub for business. To foster this image, the city is undergoing a massive amount of construction and development aimed at modernising infrastructure and heightening the city's glamour. New projects are regularly announced, each seemingly more grandiose than the previous.

That sleeping workers died in the midst of all this makes one wonder: how stable are the foundations of this glory? Are employers ignoring the health and safety of their employees for personal gain? Is the government turning a blind-eye to companies not following regulations as they race to increase the city's prestige?

Following a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in the eastern city of Van in October, these questions were also being asked. Many of the homes in Van did not meet safety requirements and collapsed on top of their residents during the earthquake and in the days afterwards as tremors struck the region again and again.

Istanbul itself is due for a massive earthquake, which is expected to occur sometime in the next three decades. An estimated 300,000 people are expected to die, while an estimated 40% of the buildings will be damaged. The city has spent a reported $560bn preparing for the quake thus far. Yet most experts interviewed for frequent articles published in local press on earthquake preparedness say the city is not ready to cope with such a quake. Nor is it ready for the ensuing anarchy that is expected to follow as city residents seek out water, food and shelter.

Some of the workers that died in the tent fire were reportedly from Van and had migrated to Istanbul following the earthquake there. It appears that emergency evacuation routes did not conform to regulations and the workers were trapped. The government-affiliated daily Today's Zamanreported on March 13 that Turkey ranked 80th in terms of job safety in 2009, according to the International Labor Organisation (ILO). Recent work tragedies including a factory explosion in Ankara's Middle East Trade and Industry Centre (OSTIM) and the collapse of a tunnel in a dam that was under construction in the southern province of Adana.

The glamour of the city cannot reflect away the questionable foundations of Istanbul's race to glory.

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