Forms of Violence in Turkey

According to the 2017 Report on Work Murders, 2,006 workers lost their lives in work-related incidents in Turkey. The report is prepared by the Workers’ Health and Work Safety Assembly of Turkey, an organisation that has been gathering the publicly available data on fatal work-related incidents since 2011. This number is only the amount that the assembly could record based on what they could gather by scanning news outlets. The actual figure is mostly likely much larger. Commenting on the report, labour historian Aslı Odman said working under such conditions should be deemed  a modality of war.

According to the report, work-related deaths are concentrated in construction (422 deaths or 23% of the total), agriculture (389, 19%), and transport (265, 13%), followed by metal and mining with a combined 11% (170 workers). The pattern must be considered within the broader context of the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) focus on construction, energy and arms sectors. We can trace the links between the class violence of work murders with other forms of violence (dispossession through discrimination, displacement and indebtedness) that increasingly structure life in Turkey. In this essay, I will focus only on construction and energy, leaving the arms sector and the economic meaning of war in Afrin for another occasion.)

The construction sector is a field of investment and employment with a very quick multiplier effect. Together with the real estate sector, it makes up roughly the 16% of Turkey’s GDP. But more importantly, throughout the AKP years, construction has been the fastest growing sector in terms of employment. Nevertheless, because it is an investment frozen in concrete; construction does not contribute to the improvement of the productive capacity of the economy.

As it is well known but usually conveniently forgotten, the labour market in Turkey is often hierarchically layered along the ethnic axis and both construction and agriculture are sectors where predominantly internally displaced Kurdish workers and more recently Syrian migrants are employed. To this ethnically layered class violence, we must add the never-ending violence of “urban transformation” with its loud and dusty demolition, with its trucks darting in and out of residential neighbourhoods, and with its development projects that invariably entail the elimination of the last remaining pieces of nature in cities.

Construction is also one of the foremost channels for the financialisation of life in Turkey. According to the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency, as of December 2017, in terms of overall credits and loans, with 8,64%, construction is the second largest sector. But more importantly, approximately 40% of consumer loans (23% of total loans) are housing-related. Housing, in other words, is one of the most important ways in which households in Turkey become indebted.

In contrast, infrastructure projects (in particular, mega-projects like the third airport in Istanbul or the various bridges and tunnels across Bosporus and the Marmara region) are financed through guarantees from the Treasury and thereby will eventually increase (and in some cases have already increased) the indebtedness of the government.

In thinking about the violence in the construction sector, therefore, the death of 422 workers in the construction sector is unfortunately only the most visible tip of the iceberg with underlying layers of structural forms of violence.

The energy sector, where coal mining figures in as an important item, is itself a symptom of the structural trade deficit of the economy. Whether the production is for export markets or for domestic demand, manufacturing is dependent upon imported inputs. And, of course, the trade deficit fuels the current account deficit and foreign currency dependency. Every time the value of the U.S. dollar rises in relation to the Turkish lira, given the import dependency of the manufacturing sector, it immediately translates into inflation.

This brings us back to finance once again. In response to inflationary pressures, the central bank needs to tighten monetary policy. Nevertheless, since any upward adjustment in the policy rate will mean slowing down the economy, that is unacceptable for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is betting everything on local, general and presidential elections due in 2019.

Therefore, the death of 74 miners is once again only the most visible symptom of a violent economy pushed to its limits under structural trade and current account deficit conditions. To release the pressure emanating from the country’s energy deficit, the AKP has prioritised investment in energy-related sectors (e.g., coal mining, hydro-power, nuclear) and, as exemplified in the tragic Soma mining disaster of 2014 where 301 miners died, pursuing a violent “extractionist” policy without regard to workplace safety, ecological impact or the social fabric.