Is Turkey’s government taking jobs from students who protest?

Trying to cope with the economic crisis, many students in Izmir have begun looking for part-time jobs, only to find themselves barred from working by government security checks.

Turkey is in the middle of an economic downturn, with the economy contracting by a quarterly 1.1 percent in the three months to September amid record inflation that has driven a sharp increase in food prices. The Turkish lira lost 28 percent of its value last year, while the unemployment rate has steadily risen, to 11.6 percent in January. 

In the past five years, some 15 percent of Turkey’s 7.5 million university students have either dropped out or took a break from their courses by freezing their university registration, according to the Ministry of Education. In the 2017-2018 academic year, more than 408,000 students quit university in Turkey, a stunning 92.2 percent jump compared to the previous year.

All those dropouts need jobs. But the fate of many students and former students looking for work at a chain of cafes run by the municipality of Turkey’s third largest city, Izmir (İZBAŞ), spotlights the growing financial fears of young Turkish people cause by the economic downturn. 

A government decree issued in January 2017 during a state of emergency following the July 2016 coup attempt, made a security check a requirement for all contracted employees, expanding the practice from civil servants.

Young people in Izmir report that after weeks of waiting for their security clearance for a cafe job, they receive a rejection, with no reason given. Several fear they have been denied because they had engaged in political dissent, joining protests, or commented on social media. 

Run by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the İZBAŞ cafes in early 2017 began telling students that their 11-month contracts could not be renewed, citing their failure to pass the security check.

“The state won’t even allow us to work as waiters when we are students. What are we to do when even the CHP municipality won’t speak up on this?” one student said.

“Municipal officials can’t explain to us why we haven’t been able to pass the security investigation. We don’t even have a formal document given to us. There is supposedly a crime, but we don’t know what this crime is. I have never been detained, nor is there a case against me,” said former İZBAŞ cafe employee Ahmet Karabela, who is a student at Izmir’s Ege University.


Ahmet Karabela
Ahmet Karabela

For Karabela, the CHP’s silence regarding the failed security checks is just as undemocratic as the government’s practice itself.

Another student from Ege University, Adar İlhan, said he applied for a job at the cafe because his other options, such as construction work, paid less and had worse hours. 

“It took me months to find out that I had been denied the job and why,” İlhan said. He said he was acquitted in a case where he was tried alongside 107 other students over protests. His acquittal should be enough to prove his innocence, he said.

“This may be outside the CHP’s jurisdiction, but how can a party that describes itself as Turkey’s main opposition remain silent with such a practice?” İlhan asked. 

“I graduated at the top of my class as a Turkish teacher and received a very high score on my civil servant examination, but I was left beneath the scoring threshold for employment. How can I feel safe in country like this? How can we dream about the future in a country where even a municipality that calls itself an opposition cannot stand up for its values?” he asked.

Fourth year architecture student Ezgi Yılmaz said that while applying for a position at an İZBAŞ cafe, she learned that she was barred from working in any public sector job. She believes that taking part in a democratic act, such as protesting, comes at the price of being unemployed. 

“Why can’t we be given a concrete reason as to why we’re not being hired in the public sector? We know that private companies too are being forced to comply with such practices. It feels as though all of my efforts for an education have been in vain,” said Yılmaz. 

İZBAŞ authorities say security clearances are not determined by the municipality.

“We don’t get to decide on things,” an official told Ahval. “This is the decision of the Security Directorate under the auspices of the Governorate of Izmir. We have to follow the law. We receive a closed envelope that says that they have either passed or failed the security test. That’s all we have to work with.”