An airport uprising in Erdoğan’s Turkey

September 19, 2018

Hakan Yılmaz explains the background to an eruption of resistance in Turkey: a strike by workers building another high-profile project of the Erdoğan government.

FOUR YEARS ago, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had a new 1,100-room presidential palace built for himself to replace the one constructed under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey and its first president.

A new airport under construction in Istanbul — which would be the largest in the world once completed — is to be another symbol of the transformation of Turkey under Erdoğan, the prime minister and now president of Turkey for the past 15 years.

But with thousands of construction workers going on strike last week to protest the deaths and injuries of co-workers since the beginning of the project in 2015, the airport is a symbol of the resistance against the brutal conditions for workers in Turkey and the heavy-handed repression of the Erdoğan regime against calls for labor rights.

Earlier this year, rumors began spreading that up to 400 workers had been killed so far during the construction of the airport. The Ministry of Labor has responded that the death count was 27.

Construction workers protest conditions at a site for a new airport in Istanbul
Construction workers protest conditions at a site for a new airport in Istanbul

Even that official count is a shocking statistic for a single construction project. But Turkey’s epidemic of workplace deaths and injuries — which has been the subject of strikes and protests that have spread nationally over the last several years — makes the workers’ higher claims easy to believe.

Also earlier this year, the center-left newspaper Cumhuriyet reported that families of workers have been paid off to keep quiet after they lost their loved ones. Earlier this month, Cumhuriyet purged many of its left-wing writers, another symptom of the growing authoritarianism of this period under Erdoğan.

LAST WEEK, two shuttle buses carrying construction workers at the new airport crashed, injuring 17. This led to the strike early Friday morning, with thousands of workers joining in. As the strike spread and workers rallied to raise their voice, they referred to the airport as “the cemetery.”

That night, police and security forces attacked the workers’ dormitories, using tear gas and arresting a total of 500 workers then and in the coming days. Many were released, but some remain behind bars, according to reports.

Police then built barriers to prevent anyone other than workers — who are escorted to their shuttles and work sites by police — from entering the site. Officials of a left-wing party and journalists who tried to get into the airport to see the conditions of the workers were denied entry.

The workers say that the airport has been turned into a “slave camp,” and that they are forced to work under the eye of police patrols. Those who gather in groups to talk are arrested.

But media groups linked to the government have started a smear campaign, claiming that some workers were paid to provoke others and could be affiliated with terrorist groups. Some 28 workers are being charged with damaging public property, threatening public security and provoking the public to be hateful. The accusations of terrorism have become a regular tool of the Erdoğan regime.

A large number of the workers are employed by subcontractors linked to the government. According to workers, as the Turkey’s currency, the lira, collapsed in value by 40 percent against the dollar over this year, many employers started going under and stopped paying them.

Workers also say that they have been required to work up to 16 hours a day. Those who live in the workers’ dorms at the airport site say that they share rooms with up to five, co-workers, and those rooms are infested with bedbugs.

In February, a committee of workers met with employers to discuss the problems regarding poor quality of the food and dorms and workplace safety measures. The committee claimed the problems would be resolved, but seven months later, there has been little progress, workers say.

After the police attack, workers released their demands:

1. Those who participated in the protest must keep their jobs
2. Workers who have been let go without prior notice must return to work
3. A solution to the transportation problem that led to the shuttle bus crash
4. Clean bathrooms and bedrooms and a solution to the bedbug problem
5. Regular medical treatment by respectful health care personnel and access to medication and other health care supplies.
6. Direct deposit payments of wages, instead of irregular cash payments
7. Payment of the unpaid salaries
8. Workers and supervisors eat in the same cafeterias
9. The firing of officials and supervisors responsible for the problems
10. A public announcement of these demands in front of the press
11. A solution to the numerous workplace deaths
12. Workers who haven’t been paid for six months must be paid
13. Holiday bonuses for workers
14. The firing of an official who has been unfair to Azerbaijani workers
15. Work clothes must be provided to workers.

These demands show the cruelty of the workplace regime, not only at the airport construction site, but across Turkey. Thousands of workers saw no other option but to strike in protest of workplace deaths, non-payment of wages and the horrible conditions of their living quarters.

In Ankara and Istanbul, protesters gathered to show solidarity with the construction workers — where they, too, were attacked by police. #KoleDegiliz — which means “We are not slaves” in Turkish — has become the slogan of the protests.

THE AIRPORT uprising is the first large-scale labor confrontation in Turkey since Erdoğan won re-election to the presidency last June, after having increased its powers with a previous referendum.

Since the vote, the country’s already declining economy went into free fall with the lira losing more than 30 percent of its value against the dollar in August alone.

Many workplaces are either shutting down or pausing operations indefinitely. According to one report, between January 2017 and June 2018, an average of 38 workplaces shut down each day, and that rate has only gone up since the election.

Before the airport strike last week, Turkey’s central bank increased its benchmark interest rate by 6.25 percent. This was the largest increase under Erdoğan’s rule. The president has been aggressively opposed to high interest rates on the grounds that this slows down growth, but he didn’t intervene against the central bank, no doubt to show international investors that the bank is still independent.

The interest rate hike is bound to be ineffective in bringing down the hyperinflation that the country is facing. According to some estimates, annual inflation is already running at 100 percent. The central bank predicts an annual rate of 19.6 percent for this year, up from 17 percent just a few months ago.

Working people are bearing the brunt. Last week, many people in Turkey reacted on social media when increases in prices for paper products led to a pack of 24 rolls of toilet paper rising to 55 liras — in a country where a minimum-wage worker earns only 53 liras a day.

Erdoğan made a statement last week criticizing the central bank for failing to estimate inflation correctly before. He also announced that he would put all new construction or infrastructure projects that have been announced, but not started, on hold.

Besides the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), many in Turkey’s opposition parties have stood behind Erdoğan’s nationalist response for all people in Turkey to pull together against Donald Trump’s tariff threats.

But the costs of the crisis continue to fall on the shoulders of the workers. That’s why the airport construction workers’ strike is not only important for the immediate demands of workers themselves, but also in challenging the nationalist narrative that workers in Turkey need to unite with the Erdoğan government and Turkish companies to oppose the U.S. economic war.

Last month, billionaire Turkish capitalists such as Murat Ülker, the head of the multibillion-dollar food company Yıldız Holding, and Güler Sabancı, chairperson of Turkey’s second-largest industrial and financial conglomerate, declared their support for Erdoğan’s government and his economic policies.

This is who Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party represent. They have held power for over 15 years not just by appealing to the conservative cultural values consistent with their version of Islam, but also by gaining the support of large sections of capitalists in Turkey and the U.S.

As the crisis deepens and more workers in different sectors get laid off or are forced to work without pay, the only solution for workers is to resist and strike.

It is the task of the HDP and the left in Turkey to challenge the Erdoğan government — unlike the mainstream opposition parties — and to put forward an alternative to the nationalism and repression that it increasingly relies on.

As construction workers lead the way in showing how to protest the economic crisis government repression, it is important for the left around the world to do what we can to offer our support.

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