English Interviews

Denim sandblasters contract fatal silicosis in illegal workshops

October 19, 2008

Hundreds of workers in Turkey are exposed to the deadly disease silicosis simply because they were hired to manually sandblast denim in makeshift illegal workshops where the health and well-being of laborers were disregarded and safety gear ignored, activists say.

As manual sandblasted jeans and denim became popular among youth, illegal and unregistered workshops popped up all over to exploit the increasing demand. Zeki Kılıçaslan, a medical doctor, estimates that at least 3,000 to 5,000 people have contracted silicosis, though only a little over 500 patients have been diagnosed with the disease so far. Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Kılıçaslan said many workers who went through these workshops have no insurance and shied away from going to doctors. That might explain why the registered number of patients we have is small compared to our estimates, he added.

Industry analysts put the number of people who work or had worked in the past in sandblasting jobs at around 10,000 to 15,000. Most workers who landed in denim workshops came to big cities in search of jobs and were forced to work in hazardous conditions. Aged between 15 and 25, they primarily came from Turkey’s central, eastern and southeastern cities of Bingöl, Adıyaman, Diyarbakır and Sivas.

The issue was recently brought to the attention of the public when the story of Abdülhalim Demir, a former sandblasting worker, appeared in the media.

Diagnosed with silicosis, Demir wrote heartfelt letters explaining how he felt about his diagnosis. It sparked public outcry and pushed government agencies to raid and crack down on the workshops. He wrote two letters, titled “Abandoned Children of the Stork” and “A Letter to the Ill-Timed Death.”

Speaking with Sunday’s Zaman, Demir talked about the real-life drama he has been through. “After I stopped working in the denim workshop in 2003, I was drafted into the army. On the morning runs, I could not run and military doctors failed to diagnose my sickness,” he said. Demir saw news reports about diseases contracted by workers who had worked in sandblasting denim after he was discharged. “I went to Erzurum to get another opinion on my sickness,” he noted, adding, “And a month later I got a call from the hospital and was told I had the deadly disease called silicosis.”

In his first letter, Demir wrote that 300 people from the village of Taşlıcay in Bingöl province had migrated to İstanbul in the hopes of making money, but instead returned to their village with silicosis. “Now all of us are ill and this is a sickness that has no treatment. In our village alone, 187 people have been diagnosed with this disease. Taking into consideration those who have yet to see a doctor, we number 300 and await our death helplessly,” he said.

Some of the questions he included in his letters were very emotional. “Do you know how it feels to be waiting for death?” he asks. He then asks: “Did your doctors ever tell you that you would die in a few years since treatment for the disease does not exist? Have you ever thought you wouldn’t be able to see your children grow up?”

Silicosis, a disease of the lungs caused by the inhalation and retention of crystalline silica, is a classic miner’s disease seen in employees who work in tunnel and road construction as well as the foundry business. The disease is well known in medical science literature and preventable, provided there is an early diagnosis. It easily develops under unsafe and unhealthy conditions such as small and unventilated workplaces and from exposure to tiny sand particles for extended periods of time.

In sandblasting workshops, workers are forced to sandblast in a very small and confined area. As these shops operate illegally, they are mostly located in remote areas or in basements of buildings away from watchdog agencies. While denim is being blasted, a great amount of dust mixes with the air and enters workers’ lungs. The main symptoms include coughing, bloody mucus and difficulty in breathing. As the disease progresses, the lungs begin to lose their flexibility and this results in serious difficulty in breathing. Silicosis eventually leads to death.

Because of the risks associated with sandblasting, industry observers say it should be done in a controlled environment using ventilation, protective clothing and an air supply of oxygen. Furthermore, automated sandblasting machines are widely available on the market. However, illegal shop owners choose to take advantage of young and inexpensive labor coming from the countryside.

“When I first arrived in İstanbul, I had to sleep on park benches for three days,” he said. “Then I found the job at a sandblasting factory that saved me from the street and offered me a shelter and money,” Demir noted. He recalls, “I knew it was not a dream job for me, but I had no choice.” He even called his two brothers back home and had them start working in the same factory. “Now all of us are sick,” he laments.

1999 was the year of rodeo jeans and they were very popular among the youth. Increasing sale numbers suddenly doubled wages. Many workers from rural areas flocked to cities to look for jobs in jean and denim workshops. The capital and overhead cost for the establishment of a sandblast denim workshop was not very high. All that was necessary was an air tank, one or two spray guns, a compressor and a shack to house these were enough to start up a business.

Unscrupulous owners first used illegal migrants from countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan to fill the spots. As business expanded, people migrated from their villages and replaced illegal immigrants. Young men in their early 20s came to İstanbul, far from home, and contracted the disease in a very short time after exposure to the tiny sand particles caused by blasting denim.

Since these shops operate without a license, they do not offer medical insurance and social security benefits. Without a paper trail, it becomes difficult to prove that the businesses even operated.

Uninsured workers are a significant problem in Turkey not only in denim sandblasting but in other industries as well. Speaking with Sunday’s Zaman, Consumers Association (TÜDER) President Engin Başaran said this is a serious problem in Turkey. “While in developed countries labor safety and security is strictly regulated and enforced, in countries like Turkey people work in substandard conditions and safety is often violated and disregarded. Our government needs to tackle the child labor issue in particular,” he stressed, adding, “In some cases, children at the age of 13 or 14 are employed as adult workers.”

After a widespread crackdown on these shops, the number of sandblasting places dropped dramatically. The Ministry for Industry and Labor is responsible for enforcing regulations governing workplace security and labor safety. Many such workshops have been shut down by authorities. Feeling the pressure, many owners tried selling their businesses and leaving the market. “But the damage has already been done,” stresses Kılıçaslan, who also heads the small leftist Labor Fraternity Party (TİK). What ought to be done now, he says, is an emergency center should be formed to deal with 15,000 people who worked in denim sandblasting. He also asks that the government provide free medical care for these people.

Demir sounds resigned to his destiny and in the final sentences of his letter writes: “We know everyone will die. What hurts more, though, is our ill-timed death at such a young age — in our 20s and 30s.” He pleads for help for these aggrieved people, waiting their turn to die. He concludes: “We have an incurable disease now. Maybe you cannot prevent our death, but you can restore our broken hearts, you can let us die in peace.”

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