A TOTAL of 21,800 workers have been killed in work-related accidents in the country since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power 16 years ago, a report drafted by Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), drafted by CHP Ankara deputy Tekin Bingöl, shows.
According to the report, Turkey leads Europe in the number of work-related fatalities, with four workers losing their lives every day. The report says the number of female workers killed in work accidents is on the rise. Seven hundred and twenty-two women were killed in work accidents between 2013 and in the first six months of 2018.
Ninety per cent of female workers are not members of any labour union, and 75 per cent of them work in the informal economy. In the same period, 319 child workers also died in work-related accidents. The report also provides information about workers who committed suicide for work-related reasons.
Fifteen workers committed suicide in 2013, 25 in 2014, 59 in 2015, 90 in 2016 and 89 in 2017 due to reasons related to their jobs. The report cites long working hours (more than 12 hours a day), oppressive working conditions, the psychological pressure applied by their employers, stress, lack of a permanent job, low salaries and unpaid extra work as the reasons leading the workers to take their own lives.
The construction, agriculture and mining sectors lead in the number of work accidents due to the rapid growth of these sectors, competition and the lack of supervision of work conditions, according to the report. This comes as rights groups and trade unions slammed Turkey’s arrest of hundreds of striking workers protesting against poor safety conditions at Istanbul’s new airport project.
Last Friday September 14, thousands of construction workers went on strike at Istanbul Grand Airport, a new international airport slated to open this year. They chanted ‘Workers are not slaves’ and demanded improved safety conditions. At least 38 workers have died in what Human Rights Watch said were ‘preventable work-related accidents.’
Police broke up the strike with teargas and batons. They detained more than 500 workers for four days before releasing most without charge. But 24 have remained in pre-trial detention and 19 were released on bail.
Human Rights Watch said: ‘All 43 – the vast majority Kurdish – may face trial for downing tools and staging a protest. ‘Charges against the men include damaging public property, resisting police, possessing weapons, violating the law on public assemblies, and disrupting the freedom to work.
‘The treatment of the airport construction workers shows clearly that when it comes to protecting projects close to President Erdogan’s government, authorities have no compunction in cracking down brutally and trampling over the rights to protest, organise, and participate in trade union action.’ Representatives from the pro-Kurdish party HDP attended the strike on September 14, but had trouble accessing the site or getting information, MP Gunay Kubilay said at the time. He condemned the government’s record on labour-related issues.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has favoured grand, showpiece construction projects like the new airport that will compete to be the world’s largest.
Facing a financial crisis, however, his government is scaling back on such projects as part of a new economic programme focussed on ‘stabilisation, discipline, and transformation.’ ‘Mega projects will be realised through foreign direct investment and international financing,’ said Finance Minister Berat Albayrak last Thursday.
On September 14, thousands of airport construction workers protested at poor working and living conditions on the site, with a long list of demands, including an end to alleged arbitrary dismissals and late pay, and action to address workplace safety, and a bedbug infestation in workers’ sleeping quarters.
At least 38 workers have died in preventable work-related accidents and many more have been badly injured, the head of the construction workers’ union Insaat-Sen, Dev Yapi-Is, told Human Rights Watch.
Employers called in police and gendarmerie to respond to the protest, who used batons and teargas to disperse workers and later detained more than 500 of them for four days, restricting access to lawyers and parliamentarians and providing no information to families.
The rights group said that any charges against the workers should be dropped, those in detention unconditionally released, and authorities should focus on improving working conditions rather than using the police and courts to stifle workers’ demands. No one should be prosecuted or lose their job for non-violent protests about questionable work conditions.
The BWI (Building and Woodworkers International) and EFBWW (European Federation of Building and Wood Workers) issued a statement condemning the recent attacks against construction workers who have been struggling for their fundamental labour and human rights at the construction site of the New Istanbul Airport.
It said: ‘Based on the information provided by YOL-IS, currently there are more than 26,000 working at the site of the Istanbul New Airport and of this, close to 22,000 are subcontract workers employed by 281 companies. The main contractor is Airport Construction Ordinary Partnership Joint Stock Company (GA).
‘In addition, according to various sources, these subcontract workers are facing very dire circumstances ranging from low wages, delayed payment of wages, unsafe working conditions, poor and substandard accommodation facilities, harassment, and a series of human rights violations. ‘At the height of the crisis, serious confrontations took place resulting in the arrest of 24 workers.
‘A major concern for BWI and EFBWW is the failure to implement and monitor occupational safety and health guidelines and procedures resulting in serious accidents that have left workers injured or dead.’ Dietmar Schaefers, EFBWW President and BWI Deputy President, stated: ‘There is currently lack of official data or information on the causes of these accidents.’
He continued: ‘We call for independent and official investigations into the accidents that have occurred to clarify the root causes of the accidents to prevent future accidents from taking place. It is important that Turkey adheres to international safety and health standards.’
The BWI and EFBWW note that for a number of years its affiliate in Turkey YOL-IS has been actively campaigning for the rights of subcontract workers in the construction sector including the right to join trade unions and negotiate collective bargaining agreements.
Their campaign resulted in success when the union won a long-standing legal case to ensure permanent employment for 10,000 subcontract workers under the General Directorate of Highways. It is within this frame, YOL-IS is now working to find a solution.
‘As we have done in the past, the BWI and EFBWW continue to support the efforts by YOL-IS which is currently working at all levels and engaging in dialogue with various stakeholders including the main contractor and government officials to resolve the labour crisis,’ stated Ambet Yuson, BWI General Secretary.
He continued: ‘We believe that it is important to remain focussed on addressing the complaints and concerns that workers have raised. ‘A substantive, long-term, and permanent solution must be put in place to ensure that subcontract workers working at the Istanbul New Airport and throughout Turkey have decent work, living wage, and are guaranteed fundamental labour and human rights. ‘An important part of the solution at the Istanbul New Airport project is to immediately release all workers who have been arrested.’
The order by an Istanbul court to remand 24 construction workers and union leaders in prison pending trial is a blatant attempt by the authorities to silence legitimate protest, Amnesty International said. The workers and union leaders were amongst the hundreds of others who had been detained in police custody since 15 September following protests in Istanbul about working conditions at the construction site of a new airport due to open in the city next month. Clashes ensued after the police intervened to end the protest.
‘Rather than stifle legitimate peaceful protest with water cannons, tear gas and detentions, the Turkish authorities must listen to the complaints of the workers and ensure they have a safe and dignified place of work,’ said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s Turkey Expert. Workers complained of inhumane working and living conditions at the site and lack of workplace safety as well as delays or omissions in receiving their salaries and social security payments.
In February 2018, the then Minister of Labour and Social Security said that 27 workers had died since the construction began in May 2015, including due to health problems and traffic accidents around the site. However, workers and trade unions say that the number is much higher.
The workers and union leaders detained in prison custody are accused of preventing public servants from carrying out their work, forcing or threatening others to stop or suspend work, damaging public property and participating in the protest with weapons. However no evidence to substantiate these charges was presented at the court hearing.
‘People have the right to safety at work, to organise and to peacefully protest,’ said Andrew Gardner. ‘The misuse of the criminal justice system and intimidation of these workers not only violates their human rights, it also only serves to heighten tensions.’