Turkish unions speak out ahead of May 1 protests

By Gozde Nur Donat & Fatma Bulbul, Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Amid ongoing rows over a labor rally in Istanbul more traditional concerns about unemployment, low wages and workplace safety are still on the agenda

Amid ongoing rows over a labor rally in Istanbul more traditional concerns about unemployment, low wages and workplace safety are still on the agenda

ANKARA – Unemployment reaching three million and a lack of job security are Turkey’s most serious labor problems, a leading trade unionist has said.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA) ahead of May 1 demonstrations to mark International Workers’ Day the president of the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions, Ergun Atalay, said that an increase in subcontracting and unemployment are top problems for the Turkish labor sector.

Atalay pointed to the case of long-term non-payrolled workers in Turkey: “There are 20-year-old laborers working non-payrolled in many state institutions. According to legislation, they are not able to work more than six months in a year. And that means a very late retirement for them, around the age of 80,” Atalay said.

Subcontracted workers in public institutions are being excluded from the right to join a union, something which is deepening an existing unionization problem, according to Mahmut Arslan, the president of the Confederation of Turkish Real Trade Unions.

“More than one million subcontracted workers cannot benefit from unionization and collective labor agreements. There is a continuing problem of unionization among workers, as the numbers suggest some 10 per cent of 12,000 Turkish laborers cannot join trade union due to legal difficulties,” Arslan said.

Subcontracted employment means less-secure working conditions said Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK) president, Kani Beko.

“Due to a lack of job security and difficulties in unionization, work accidents in Turkey have almost turned into murder,” said Beko.

Turkey ranks first in Europe and third in the world for fatal work accidents, according to International Labor Organization (ILO) figures. The ILO says 18 insured laborers out of 100,000 die every year in work accidents, seven times greater than the EU average of 2.5.

Unemployment and a low minimum wage is another major problem cited by the trade unions. Unemployment was 10.1 percent in January this year, with 2.8 million people out of work, according to Turkey’s statistics agency, TurkStat.

“Millions of workers work as minimum-waged laborers, making 846 TL [US$400] per month, despite the fact that the determined hunger limit is above 1,200 TL per month,” Beko said.

A recent study by the TURK-IS union claims that the hunger limit – an officially defined amount below which people cannot eat adequately – for a four-member family has risen to 1,167 TL compared to April 2013 figures. The defined poverty line also rose to 3,802 TL per month.

- ‘Demanding Taksim is right, not stubbornness’

Beko said that DISK’s insistence on demonstrating in Istanbul’s Taksim Square on May 1 was not stubbornness but an “acquired right”.

“Unidentified murderers killed workers during 1977 May 1 celebrations. Until the state brings these murderers to justice, it is our responsibility to celebrate May 1 in Taksim Square,” he said.

On May 1, 1977, as some 500,000 people gathered the square to celebrate Labor Day unidentified gunmen fired on the peaceful crowd. Thirty-six people died in the rioting and fighting which followed. Taksim Square remained closed to Labor Day demonstrations between 1977 and 2010.

The Istanbul governor's office said on Wednesday that the square would be closed to May Day demonstrations due to intelligence reports which claimed that “illegal terrorist organizations” would provoke violence against security forces. 

Beko said a 2008 verdict of European Court of Human Rights had reversed the ban on May Day celebrations in Taksim.

“As a member of ECHR, Turkey has to fulfill its responsibility to allow celebrations in Taksim,” Beko said adding that the ban also runs counter to Article 34 of the Turkish constitution, which says: ‘Everyone has the right to hold unarmed and peaceful meetings and demonstration marches without prior permission.’

Other union leaders are more reluctant to focus on the central Istanbul site: “Insisting on Taksim is to create an obstacle to labor celebrations. Let’s normalize Turkey and see all squares as Taksim Square,” the Confederation of Turkish Real Trade Unions leader Arslan said.

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