Natural resource extraction as a salient development strategy for resource-rich developing countries takes different forms depending on structural conditions such as availability and magnitude of resources, institutional arrangements, or the level of economic development. Moreover, natural resource extraction is a socioecological and sociopolitical relation indicating the exploitation of both labour and nature. On the one hand, resource extraction is determined by the discovery of the resources’ new use and exchange values (their commodification). On the other hand, natural resources determine the limits and potential of the labour process. Therefore, socioecological and sociopolitical constructions of natural resources are inherently relational: physical and structural conditions are mutually related to class relations and class struggle within the country and locality in question, and this mutual relationship determines the form of the extractivist development.

In my recently published article I suggest a holistic and relational approach to grasp labour processes and (local) labour control strategies in the extractive industries by analysing them as the reflections of state-capital-labour-nature relations. This necessitates attention to (i) the role of the natural resource in the global accumulation processes and for the development strategies of the state; (ii) the formation of the local labour market through proletarianization of rural population; (iii) the organization of work considering natural factors and workforce composition; (iv) the use of local political, institutional and community dynamics.

Firstly, labour control in extractive regions takes peculiar forms due to the embeddedness not only of labour but also of extractive capital on the economic landscape. Despite the widespread assumption that capital is geographically more mobile than labour, dependency on nature and spatial fixity of natural resources limits the spatial mobility of extractive capital. Therefore, it has to organize labour processes and develop control strategies considering natural and social factors such as the geological structure of the basin or the social composition of the local workforce. In this sense, nature’s role is not reducible to being exploited; natural factors set limits to the labour process and shape local class relations.

Secondly, labour control in extractive regions is shaped by the processes within which labourers are compelled to sell their labour-power to extractive capital, and this is mainly related to the transformation of local population’s relation to land and agriculture. Especially under neoliberalism, extractive capital confronted a peculiar form of rural class structure in which classes of labour who are partly or completely dispossessed from their land constitute the main actors.

Finally, the state organizes the capital-labour-nature relation at the local level to implement macro development policies based on natural resource extraction. This is a direct reflection of the contradictory role of the capitalist state: to guarantee continuous accumulation of capital by organising the power bloc and to organise popular consent of the masses. At this point, the strategic significance of the natural resource in question for the macro development plans or global production networks determines labour process and control and various political, institutional and community dynamics within the locality are used by the state to ensure a certain level of economic and social stability for the extractive capital.

Following this relational approach, for the analysis of labour process and control in the Soma Coal Basin, I pay attention to (i) the strategic significance of domestic coal extraction for the authoritarian neoliberal development policies in Turkey; (ii) the formation of the local labour market through proletarianization of local farmers and labour migration; (iii) organization of work considering both natural limits (geological impediments in the coalfield) and workforce composition;  (iv) the use of local political, institutional and community dynamics.

Turkey’s coal extraction is related to the consecutive Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments’ aim of utilizing domestic coal in electricity generation to overcome the problem of energy supply security. Policy programmes since the early 2010s have prioritized the coal industry, large-scale coal projects were declared primary investments, and coal investors received large state subsidies. In this context, the peculiar form of coal extraction privatization through royalty tender constitutes the most effective government support to extractive capital. Royalty tender directly reflects the state-capital-labour relations in the coal industry through the guarantee of purchase provided to coal investors by the state – as the sole customer of coal. There is no legal restriction for the firms regarding the amount of production, and the state enterprise named Turkish Coal Enterprises (TKİ) buys all the coal extracted. Therefore, coal companies tend to accelerate production using low-cost, labour-intensive techniques to make profits.

Although extractivism of the AKP government is characterised by the dispossession of farmlands for the large-scale energy and mine investments and ecological breakdown in the countryside, there have been limited rural resistance movements against it. This is related to the simultaneous neoliberal transformation of agricultural production and impoverishment of small-scale farmers as a result. In this context, extractive investments in rural areas have been regarded as an employment opportunity, albeit providing casual and precarious jobs. In Soma, the mid-2000s was characterised by the dispossession and proletarianization of the tobacco farmers who lost the state support due to the privatization of the state economic enterprise named Tekel (State Monopoly of Tobacco and Alcoholic Beverages) and the rising private sector investments in the underground coal pits. The recently dispossessed farmers who could not meet the conditions of social reproduction solely with tobacco production constituted the perfect workforce for the private coal companies.

The Soma Mine Disaster directly reflected the coal rush of the AKP governments and extractive capital. On May 13th 2014, 301 miners died at an underground coal mine operated by the Soma Coal Company. As indicated in the expert report of the disaster, coal policies of the AKP governments and the production pressure in the Soma Coal Company were the reasons behind the disaster. As mentioned in the expert report and explained by the miners during my fieldwork, production pressure indicates super-exploitation of both nature and labour-power. The amount of the coal extracted both exceeds the mechanical capacity of the pits and pushes workers to extract coal under inhuman conditions to extract the maximum possible amount of coal to meet the demands of the coal rush policies.

Even after a fatal disaster stemming from the mismatch between the mechanical structure of the basin and high levels of production, the AKP governments and coal companies have been able to sustain the rhythms of investments. As the state-capital-labour nature relations determine the labour control strategies in the extractive regions and investments cannot easily be relocated due to the spatial fixity of coal, the government and coal investors have developed local labour control and discipline mechanisms using local political, institutional, and community dynamics. There have been small-scale resistance movements but none of them targeted the multi-dimensional relations of exploitation in the basin including the dispossession of farmers, expropriation of land, ecological breakdown, and health and safety in the coal pits.

Coşku Çelik is a Visiting Assistant Professor at York University.

To read more, see: Coşku Çelik. “Extractivism and Labour Control: Reflections of Turkey’s ‘Coal Rush’ in Local Labour Regimes” in Critical Sociology 2021.

Image: B3tarev3 via Flickr (CC BY 1.0)