Thousands die in Turkey as workplace accidents go unchecked

Whether capitalist or socialist, economic systems and the exploitation and repression of labour began simultaneously. Exploitation and repression exist whenever a person voluntarily or involuntarily accepts being subjugated by a real or abstract authority like to earn a living.

Since the late 18th century, workers have been struggling to asset their rights and not to be treated as slaves. Those is power wanted to control their enemies by using the economy. And for that purpose, they were ready to waste human life. All of today’s advanced economies have a bloody history of labour. Workers were treated as objects, used and then thrown away. They were called “lost generations” or, when their national narratives required otherwise, “heroic generations that wrote history”.  

The struggle aimed at easing exploitation and repression. The rights covering working hours and conditions were never granted easily. The history of the struggle for labour rights is as bloody as the history of labour.

May Day marks the violent ending of a strike for an eight-hour working day in Chicago. There has never been a single demand of workers that has not been met with violence.

Despite the relevant improvements in working life in advanced economies, today’s champions of worker exploitation are countries hostile to workers, the environment and urban life that seek economic development by using the repressive means of the past.  

According to the figures of the World Federation of Trade Unions and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) a significant percentage of 270 million workplace accidents that take place annually in the world occur in such countries. Some 160 million people suffer from workplace diseases and around two million die as a result.

A more striking calculation indicates that every 15 seconds 150 workers become victims of workplace accidents and one worker dies. This amounts to 5,760 workplace deaths every day. Today such numbers of people do not die even in wars. But in fact, wars are not waged using the methods of the past. Is there really any difference between excavation trucks and tanks?

First it was the World Federation of Trade Unions in 1996 that recognised April 28 as “the International Commemoration Day for Dead and Injured Workers”. The ILO named it in 2001 “the World Day for Safety and Health at Work”. A year later the United Nations officially recognised April 28, which is today an official or unofficial day of commemoration in many countries.

But not in Turkey of course. Last week the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) submitted a parliamentary motion to recognise April 28 as a day of mourning to commemorate dead workers. Of course, the motion was not even recorded, let alone discussed in the parliament.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has a disastrous record when it comes to workplace safety. Turkey ranks first in Europe and third in the world in workplace deaths. The architects of economic development in the country not only tore up the labour laws, but also caused what amounts to a massacre of workers unprecedented in the history of modern Turkey. Workers are not only laid off at will, but are also losing their lives in huge numbers.

In fact, when the law on workplace health and safety was adopted as a part of the reforms for harmonisation with the EU, it was said that workers would not die anymore. Yet, the employers continuously pushed for the implementation of the law to be postponed and inevitably the issue of workplace safety has been left to fate.

In Turkey, families seeking justice for the occupational deaths of their relatives have been publishing an annual Workplace Murders Almanac since 2012. The 2018 almanac includes stories of those who were killed while working, those who stood up for workplace safety and lost their jobs as a result and the victims of illnesses contracted at work.

Of course, construction is and has always been the industry that has the highest percentage of workplace accidents and the lowest percentage of unionised workers. According to union activist Aziz Çelik, the number of construction workers who are members of trade unions is less than 1,000.

EU reports on Turkey consistently underline basic problems such as the elimination of guarantees that prevent workers being laid off for membership of trade unions, barriers that prevent negotiating collective labour agreements, restrictions on the right to demonstrate, including bans on strikes, and the high rate of child labour.

In 2018 alone, 66 school-age children lost their lives at work in Turkey. The official statistical institute said children’s participation in the labour force increased to 21.1 percent in 2018 – that in the year Turkey officially declared the year of the fight against child labour. The report on child labour and occupational deaths among children prepared by Turkey’s Health and Safety Labour Watch provides devastating evidence on this issue. We should also note the situation of women workers who usually work in informal jobs - their deaths are largely unrecorded in the statistics on workplace accidents.

The EU made the following observation: “Almost 40 percent of the labour cannot benefit from the guarantees provided by the labour law as a result of informal employment and inefficient implementation of the existing rules.”

Since the record keeping started, 878 workers were victims of occupational deaths in 2012; 1,235 in 2013, 1,886 in 2014, 1,703 in 2015, 1,924 in 2016, 1,947 in 2017, and 1,872 in 2018. In the first quarter of 2019, 392 workers died as a result of workplace accidents.

The figures indicate there has been a minor decline in occupational deaths since last year. As the country is saved from crazy infrastructure projects due to an economic recession, more workers are spared from workplace accidents. What a paradox!

Those who want to follow closely news of occupational deaths and injuries, can get in touch with civil initiatives in Turkey via their online sites and social media accounts:

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.