Erdoğan’s crackdown extends to Turkey’s fractured labor movement - The Nation

As Turkey continues its slide toward autocracy under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkish government’s crackdown on dissent extends to the country’s fractured labor movement, the Nation said on Friday. 

A total of 401 people were detained in September during a strike by thousands of workers against ghastly working conditions and worker deaths at the Istanbul’s third airport project. 

While the protest was triggered by an on site service bus accident that injured 17, official sources indicate at least 27 employees have been killed on the site since 2015. This number is much higher according to unofficial sources, including the airport staff.

Some 31 workers, who were later officially arrested, was released by a Turkish court this month. But the court refused to drop any of the charges against the workers including “violating the freedom to work,” “joining meetings and marches with weapons,” and “damaging property.”

For the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK), the arrests of airport workers is the latest sign of the state’s crackdown on organised labor, the Nation said. 

Kanber Saygılı, head of DISK’s solidarity campaign with the airport workers, said that the strike in September shed some light on the ghastly working conditions underlying the multi-billion-dollar third airport project.

“It was a closed-off construction site in a very remote area, so people couldn’t see what was going on. With this rebellion, things became obvious,” Saygılı said.

According to Saygılı, the strike’s high profile also explains the government’s heavy-handed response.

“This rebellion at the airport could become an example for other workers across the country because it was such a visible event,” said Saygılı. “The government doesn’t want this and so they’re sending a message to the others that you cannot rebel like that.

The deterioration of human rights and the rule of law in Turkey is widely covered in the national and foreign media. However the working conditions in the country are also alarming. 

For the last three years, the International Trade Union Confederation Turkey has labeled Turkey one of the world’s “ten worst countries for workers,” adding there is no guarantee of rights with firings and detentions of union activists all-too common, the Nation said.

The situation for unions has worsened following a failed coup attempt in 2016 as around 130,000 public sector employees were sacked during a two-year emergency rule. 

The Confederation of Public Labourer’s Unions (KESK) organised some small scale protests as a response, while two teachers, who had been dismissed from public service, started a hunger strike last year that lasted almost 11 months.  

But the scope of direct action was limited, with many civil servants worried of being “purged” themselves amid the various rounds of firings, the Nation said. 

The private-sector employers have also been taking advantage of Turkish workers’ lack of rights, the Nation said. Last month, 35 workers and union officials from the Renault plant were sentenced for violating the Turkish law on assemblies and demonstrations.

Eyüp Özer, a DİSK member who received a suspended five-month sentence over the next five years, said the working conditions in the country provided a unique opportunity for European employers. 

“We don’t have the labor standards of the EU, but we can do free trade,” Özer said. The EU also has a role and responsibility to improve the situation in Turkey, he said. 

According to Işıl Erdinç, a political scientist and Turkish labor expert, while unions mobilised heavily against the Turkish government a decade ago, they appear to be more fractured in recent years.

“As a divided movement, unions have contradictory positions regarding labour reforms. It’s why they have a relatively weak ability to mobilise people,” Erdinç said.