Istanbul’s porters, a dying breed

In years past, when the poor migrated to the Turkish metropolis of Istanbul from rural parts of Anatolia and failed to find streets paved with gold, many would join the hordes of porters crowding the busy bazaars and wholesale warehouses.

Once, the porters' children followed in their fathers’ footsteps, but now the younger generation is not interested and many of the jobs are disappearing and being taken by vehicles and machines.

At first porters did not have uniforms, but each dressed in the traditional garb of his village. From the 18th century, the porters' guild made its members wear blue jodhpurs and gabardine vests decorated with blue ridges during summer.

As well as their pack, akin to a saddle made to carry loads on their back, and a rope to hold down the goods, every porter would carry a mirror and a comb to preen his long moustache as he waited for jobs.

old porter

The swelling city of Istanbul, home to some 15 million, is still the primary destination for migrants from the countryside and poorer, smaller cities of the hinterland. Periodic financial crises send new waves of hopefuls to the city.

The district of Eminönü lies on the shores of Istanbul’s Golden Horn, a teeming warren of narrow streets leading from the Egyptian Bazaar past historic workshops and warehouses up the hill to the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar. Between 1,000 and 1,500 porters are estimated to work in Eminönü, but landing a job there is not easy.

Old Istanbul

First of all, you must have capital. A would-be porter must be able to pay a goodwill fee to the 'entitled brokers' and also a hefty one-off ‘pack fee’ of thousands of dollars. Then you must join a porters' squad. Eminönü has eight porters' squad with around 180 members each. Porters who are not members are blocked from working in the squad’s district, sometimes violently, and shopkeepers only hire local squad members to carry their goods.

The most senior member of the squad is called the 'sergeant'. The task of the sergeant is to guide and administer the team. Work starts at 8.30 in the morning and finishes at 6.00 in the evening. Earnings are distributed equally among squad members, but those who dodge jobs have their pay docked by the sergeant.

Earning between $25 and $50 a day, Istanbul porters work without any social security, but some buy their own insurance plan. The vast majority suffer from hernias from the heavy lifting and being bent double carrying impossibly large loads on their backs.

Porter with a load

But porters have all but disappeared from most of Istanbul apart from districts like Eminönü where the streets are too narrow, or simply too crowded, for vehicles. The common refrain from porters still plying the trade is that 'it’s not like the good old days'.

Abdulkadir Ok, 54-years-old was one of those willing to answer my questions:

Q: How long have you been doing this job?

A: I’ve been doing this for the last 20 years.

Q: Was your father a porter as well?

Q: No, I was a farmer. I grew wheat, lentils. My field was too small, we decided to sell it. I'm not sure we did the right thing.

Q: How much do you earn per day?

A: No jobs. When I first started this career, it paid well. Nowadays 150 lira ($40) on a good day, tops.

Q: How much weight do you carry per job?

A: Up to one 100 kg. We don't carry with a pack on our backs that much anymore. We use carts.

Q: Do you get sick? Do you have any social security?

A: I don't have insurance. I have green card insurance (insurance for the qualified low-income citizens that provides health services free of charge). Thank God.

Q: How much are your daily expenses?

A: Twenty to 25 lira.

Q: Do you pay rent for your home?

A: It's kind of like rented, we bought it with credit. We have monthly payments.

Q: You said that you have four children, are they in school?

A: No, they are not. My children were in school when we were living in the village, not here. Now two of them are in textile jobs, the other two works for a handbag producer.

Q: Can you read and write?

A: Yeah, but not like I need to.

Q: Have you ever been to a movie theatre in Istanbul?

A: No way!

Q: Do you read the newspapers?

A: No.

Q: Do you follow the news?

A: Not really. I don't care for politics. I'm trying to earn my daily bread.

A porter hauling a heavy load through the streets

Another porter Ziya Demirtaş:

Q: How long have you been a porter?

A: Since 1976.

Q: Was this your father's profession as well?

A: No. I joined my friends from my village. We could not find another job, we had no other choice. So, I became a porter. There was no school in our town. There were schools in the surrounding villages, but they were far away. In the winter the snow-covered roads ... it was hard.

Q: Are people still farming in your village?

A: No. Now there is nothing. Name only.

Q: Do you pay rent for your home?

A: Thank goodness, I own my home.

Q: How many porters are there in Istanbul?

A: Maybe a thousand or so. The porters were regarded very highly in Atatürk's time. During the War of Independence, the porters carried ammunition to soldiers. Ataturk even exempted porters from taxes.

Q: Do you have social security?

A: Some do. The worst aspect of our profession is being self-employed. There are some who have had two hernia operations. You can't work for six months after the operation.  

Q: Anything else you would like to say?

A: There were a lot of porters back in the day, but it's disappearing now. There were porters all over Istanbul. Now they have the machines doing our job. They only need porters where the machines cannot get to. There are forklifts, elevators. In the past, labour was valued. Quite honestly, I do not like my job very much, but it's all I have. I don't think this profession will be around after us anyway. It seems to me that we are the last representatives of this ancient craft. We will soon have machines replacing all the porters.