Official figures: 52 workers killed building Istanbul’s new airport

Fifty-two people have died while building Istanbul’s giant new airport project, according to official figures on workplace deaths at the site disclosed by Turkey’s Presidential Communications Centre (CİMER).

The information was revealed at the request of Ali Şeker, a deputy for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), who applied for the official figures after a worker was found dead inside a manhole.

After a report published in February said 400 workers had died on the site, the Turkish labour ministry refuted the figure and announced the real number was 27. CİMER’s announcement – the first official disclosure of figures on workplace deaths at the airport – shows that the real figure is much higher than the Turkish government was prepared to admit months ago.

Şeker described the conditions at the building site as similar to slave labour, and said the government had ignored multiple warnings on the poor health and safety standards at the airport.

The construction of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s flagship project to build what was planned as the world’s largest airport has stoked controversy since it began, as opponents of the plan criticised the environmental damage and costs it entailed.

This year the rights of the workers hired to build the airport came under the spotlight when workers called a strike to protest their dire working conditions in September, weeks before the airport’s soft opening in late October.

The workers read a list of demands, including for the payment of late wages and bonuses, clean and hygienic conditions in their accommodation, extermination of vermin that had infested workers’ quarters, and appropriate measures to prevent workplace deaths, which workers cited as a significant problem due to lax safety standards.

They were met with a heavy response by police, who fired on demonstrations with tear gas and water cannons and apprehended 543 striking workers and trade union representatives.

Officials from the AKP and Turkish media sources blamed the protests on provocateurs, while a worker employed at the site told Ahval the subcontractor firm employing him had described protesters as “terrorists.”

Twenty-seven of the workers detained during the protests remained in detention as of November 26. Meanwhile, union-affiliated workers continued months of protest on December 1 at the airport, where 150 of their colleagues had still not received their wages.