As risky as the job may be, those who work in Istanbul's underground tunnel projects are not complaining. They say it pays well. They also rely on faith.
More than 3,000 people get out of bed every morning to walk into the darkness. They have been employed to work underground in projects such as the Marmaray, a 13.4-kilometer subterranean transit project.
The Marmaray is an undersea rail tunnel designed to link the European and Anatolian sides of Istanbul beneath the Bosphorus strait. When completed, it will be the world's deepest undersea tube tunnel.
Marmaray is not the only underground project underway in Istanbul. Another ongoing effort is the Melen project, which provides Istanbul with fresh water. The 150-kilometer water-supply pipeline will require 25 kilometers of tunnels to be engineered. There is also a 30-kilometer subway tunnel that is under construction in Istanbul. These three projects will net a $3 billion budget this year alone.
According to the government, the workers who spend their days 145 meters below sea level are not doing anything dangerous, they are “creating art.” Unlike miners, these people are not considered to be working in a risky environment and are therefore excluded from receiving hazard pay.
Despite the challenging conditions, workers appear content for the most part. To a former miner accustomed to working a kilometer underground, a job at 145 meters below sea level is like child’s play. In addition, the prospect of digging a 200-kilometer-long tunnel beneath Istanbul strikes most workers as welcome job security.
The Melen project in detail
“There are 810 stairs,” says Nalan Tantur, a contractor, while standing near the entrance of the Melen project. Even the elevator, which resembles a birdcage, takes 11 minutes to descend. The downward journey emerges in a six-meter-wide tunnel where the limited oxygen makes breathing more difficult. Although working at this depth raises concerns about carbon monoxide contamination and other gases, these toxins are not monitored at the site.
Some 600 people are employed to work on the Melen project. Tunnels constitute 33.43 kilometers of the pipeline’s overall length of 189 kilometers. The machinery used to dig the tunnels is worth up to 15 million Turkish Liras and is in use nonstop. Workers must take small steps in order to shape the tunnels, place dynamite, weld, bend iron, and change tires in a 1.5-meter-wide area.
Besides the regular risks that every construction worker faces, these underground laborers also have to worry about high temperatures, harmful gasses and the ever-present risk of collapses or explosions.
Some 40 meters below sea level a worker points to a warning sign: “This is the breaking point. If a ship wrecks, shaft will break at this point. The tunnel will not be damaged but if workers are here, they will drown. If workers in the tunnel can reach the rescue chamber, there they will find a 10-day food supply. That is because it takes 10 days to replace the shaft and open the doors.”
For the Melen project, this rescue chamber is not the rule but the exception. There are few places where workers can find safety in case of an accident. Yet most workers chose not to think much about these risks.
“If we think about the dangers of this work, we cannot work,” said Hasan Aydın, an employee who has been working underground for the past 22 years. “Almost all workers rely on faith. Once your time is up, it doesn’t matter whether you are at sea, in the air, or on land. That is what they believe in and it keeps their minds at ease.”
“The underground job is a really dangerous one. However, the government considers these tunnels to be ‘works of art’ and that is why workers do not receive hazard pay,” said Öner Yılmaz, general director of Soner Mühendislik, a construction company that is handling the Levent and Kartal subway projects.
Salaries start at 1,500
Despite all the hardships, few workers want to quit their jobs as they find the salaries quite satisfactory. The lowest salaries for workers in Istanbul’s tunnels range from 1,500 to 2,000 liras plus insurance. Besides earning steady pay for the duration of the construction job, workers often find their next project while at their current job site.
Equipment operators, oilers, truck drivers and those who place dynamite can earn between 2,000 and 2,500 liras. Mid-level managers earn 3,000 liras.
The global economic crisis had little effect on tunnel construction, due to the prestige of the project and the relative ease of securing foreign financing for large-scale municipal projects.
The tunnel business is a never-ending job opportunity in Istanbul. With at least another 200 kilometers left to dig, most workers see these projects as guaranteed employment.