BACKGROUND: On September 10, ten workers were killed when an elevator plunged 32 floors at a construction site in Istanbul. The elevator accident came just four months after Turkey's worst industrial disaster ever, when 301 workers suffocated in a mine in the town of Soma in the western, Aegean region of the country. A decade of rapid growth has fuelled a construction boom in Turkey. However, worker safety standards have failed to keep pace with the boom. The country had the highest rate of worker deaths in Europe and the world's third-highest in 2012, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO.) According to the Turkish Assembly for Workers’ Health and Work Security, at least 1,235 died in workplace accidents in 2013, with the construction sector being responsible for most of the deaths. In 2002, 872 workplace deaths had occurred. Since then, the death toll has soared.
In the past twelve years, 12,686 people died in work accidents. Only in 2012, 278 construction workers died. 89 deaths occurred in the agriculture and forestry sectors, with the energy sector accounting for 83 workplace deaths. 80 workers perished in mine accidents and collapses. The highest number of work accidents occurs in İstanbul, followed by other industrial cities such as İzmir, Ankara, Adana, Konya, Bursa, and Gaziantep. Data provided by the Turkish Labor and Social Security Ministry on work accidents show that 172 work accidents happen daily in Turkey, four of which are fatal on average.
After the September 9 elevator accident in Istanbul's Mecidiyeköy district, an area of newly-built office blocks and shopping malls, the Turkish government vowed that it will review workplace safety standards. Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said that two International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions are now going to be submitted to parliament for ratification this year as part of efforts to improve standards. Arınç said that "It's become obvious that workplace safety is a vital issue. A plan of action will be put together and unveiled." The two ILO conventions to be sent to parliament include one on the mining sector and one on construction. The statements of Deputy Prime Minister Arınç amount to a belated recognition of facts that have been known for long; yet the government of Justice and Development party (AKP) had so far chosen to neglect the issues related to workplace safety.
On May 13, an explosion at a coal mine in Soma unleashed an underground fire that claimed the lives of 301 mineworkers, making it the worst mining accident in Turkish history. A severe decline in safety standards, coupled with superficial inspections, following the mine’s privatization in 2005, is widely regarded as having been the cause of the massive death toll. This does not come as a revelation to most and, as such, could have been avoided. In fact, two weeks prior to the tragedy, the AKP government had rejected a proposal in parliament by opposition parties to investigate a history of accidents at precisely the Soma mines. The AKP government claimed that the mines were safer than those in other countries.
Given that the mining sector in Turkey was once firmly under governmental control, those who have criticized the process of privatization under the AKP felt a degree of justification after the Soma disaster. While having significantly increased the prosperity of many Turkish citizens, the AKP’s economic governance has also come at the expense of severe restrictions in labor rights. Throughout the past decade, Turkey’s economy has grown steadily, benefitting significantly from cheap labor and low costs of production. However, such conditions could only be upheld by maintaining a tight grip on the freedom to express dissent through strikes and by restricting the formation of opposition through union membership.
Shortly after the AKP was elected into power, however, there was a prospect for change when the government adopted the Labor Act in 2003, which sought to adapt Turkish labor rights to EU standards. It introduced various benefits, including a 45-hour workweek, protection against disparate treatment between permanent and temporary workers, as well as a ‘valid cause’ requirement for termination of employment. Later, a constitutional referendum in 2010 also lifted restrictions on strikes, lockouts and union membership. Unfortunately, the reality is different.
For example, data on weekly work hours and employment by occupation reveals that, in 2012, 88.3 percent of employees worked more than 45 hours per week. In fact, 70.5 percent work more than the statutory limit of 50 hours of regular work, plus ‘overtime’ per week. Not only are Turkish employees working longer than they are supposed to, but roughly half of the working population also earns close to the minimum wage of 940.50 Lira ($526) per month, which falls well short of the official poverty line of 3,091 Lira ($1,717) per month for 2012. In addition, Turkish workers also face severely hazardous working conditions, with Turkey ranking second only to China in the number of accidents at the workplace and first in the number of work-related fatalities of all OECD nations.
However, despite these dire circumstances, labor protest and dissent have largely been absent. This is reflected by the steadily declining trend in the number of strikes per year; down from 49 in 2002 to just eight in 2012.
IMPLICATIONS: The economic model of the AKP has increasingly relied on part time work, which has more than doubled from 5.6 percent in 2005 to 11.8 percent in 2012, providing precarious and flexible work arrangements as a mean to undermine unionization. Unsurprisingly then, trade union membership in the workforce has halved from 10.6 percent in 2002 to 5.4 percent in 2011. This trend is attributable not only to an increase in part time employees, but, in particular, a result of discriminatory practice towards union members. Such individuals are often harassed and intimidated by their employers when they try to form unions, are fired if they take to activism, or pressured to resign from the union. Additionally, employers promote so-called ‘yellow unions’ that provide weak collective agreements and seek to undermine the established, independent unions. While all of this is indeed unlawful, such tactics are regularly met with impunity.
In late 2012, under pressure from the EU and the ILO, the Turkish government enacted Law No. 6356 on Trade Unions and Collective Labor Agreements. However, having been shaped to a large extent by employer organizations, this law provides little effective protection for those seeking to form a union. In fact, it can even be deemed worse than the law that it replaces. For example, those working in medium-sizes enterprises and those who are within their first six months of employment are provided weaker protection against unlawful termination. This affects roughly half of the labor force in Turkey.
The AKP’s neoliberal economic governance continues the country's old tradition of doing little to strengthen labor rights and freedoms. But labor rights is an area where the European Union could make a difference if the member states choose to put more pressure on Turkey. During the period of German Presidency of the European Union Council, two opening benchmarks were determined to be fulfilled in order to be able to open negotiations for this chapter.
The first benchmark is about ensuring full trade union rights in line with EU standards and relevant ILO conventions (87 Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize and 98 Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining), in particular as regards the right to organize, the right to strike and the right to bargain collectively both in public and private sectors.
The second benchmark is the submission of an action plan for the transition, implementation and enforcement of the relevant “acquis communautaire” with a view to include the whole labor force. Regarding the first benchmark, two new laws were enacted to ensure full trade union rights in line with EU standards. Concerning the second opening benchmark, the action plan was drafted and sent to the Commission on 30 April 2010.
CONCLUSIONS: Turkey has recently been elected into the governing authority at the International Labor Organization ILO for the coming three years. In that capacity, Turkey has not only responsibilities but should also be willing and able to provide a good example by putting its own house regarding workplace safety in order. The fact that the Turkish government has now recognized that workplace safety is indeed a vital issue and vowed to unveil a plan of action is promising.
Hendrik Muller was an intern with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program during the spring semster of 2014.
(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons, VOA)