Having tripled the size of its economy over the past decade, Turkey is invariably held up as an economic success story. But behind this outward tale of success lies a much darker backstory, one featuring a deepening income gap and crimped workers’ rights.
In 2012, the Ministry of Family and Social Rights revealed that nearly 40 percent of Turkey’s population of over 75.6 million lives at or below the monthly minimum wage of 773 liras, or about $415.19. A further 6.4 percent live below the designated hunger line of 430 liras ($237.95).
At the same time, 63 percent of the country’s bank deposits belong to a mere one-half of a percent of all account holders, according to Turkey’s financial watchdog, the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency.
Such disparity is causing concern even among government supporters. “There is [a] big social gap between rich and poor. Poverty is getting deep[er] everyday,” warned Akif Emre, an influential columnist for the pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak.
Many members of the country’s labor unions say they are reaping the consequences. “Prices are going up every day, the cost of living is becoming very expensive and workers are in no position to demand extra pay,” claimed the United Metal Workers Union’s international relations head, Eyüp Özer.
“So, what they have to do is work longer and longer hours,” Özer said. “It is not even considered overtime anymore.”
The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s Better Life Index, an annual evaluation of 34 countries’ well-being, reported that 46 percent of Turkish employees work “very long hours” (an undefined timeframe), compared to the OECD average of 9 percent.
Turkey scored a zero for the balance between time devoted to work and other activities. It also ranked at the bottom in categories such as income and employment.
Set against annual inflation of 7 percent, monthly incomes in Turkey average the lira-equivalent of $1,100, according to official data. With economic growth now on the slide – the OECD predicts 3.1 percent for 2013 – the average could decline.
Those wishing to improve working conditions have few options. While the economy has boomed, organized labor has suffered. Since the AKP came to power in 2002, labor union membership has fallen from 9.5 percent of the country’s workforce of 28.9 million to 5.9 percent.
The unions never recovered from Turkey’s 1980 military coup, which, along with jailing of thousands of labor activists, saw draconian laws introduced to curtail their influence.
Under pressure from the European Union, which Turkey is ostensibly still seeking to join, the government reformed its union laws in 2004. A ban on state workers joining a union was lifted, and a requirement was dropped that prospective union members have a state notary certify their intention.
But many restrictions on union activity remain firmly in place. Most worryingly for organizers, anti-terror laws continue to be used against their union members. “Last year, the number of labor unionists in prison was about 67,” said Emma Sinclair Webb, the Turkey researcher for the New-York-based Human Rights Watch.
“In all of these kind of operations, when you go after labor unionists as terrorists, although you have no evidence of them committing violent activities or inciting violence, it essentially has a chilling effect for the workforce more widely,” Sinclair Webb said.
“Clearly, the situation is getting worse,” agreed Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Labor Union Confederation (ITUC). “Workers can’t operate openly, they can’t hold [a] public assembly, and major companies can use laws against workers to choose which unions operate.”
Burrow experienced firsthand another growing concern of labor unions -- crackdowns by security forces on protests. Police use of tear gas and water cannons to repel May Day celebrants from Istanbul’s central Taksim Square was “an extraordinary, shocking event,” she said.
The government insisted that construction made the square “unsafe” for such a large gathering, yet a few days later, thousands of soccer fans gathered at the site to celebrate a local team’s win of the national championship.
Burrow said that the ITUC, which claims to represent 175 million workers worldwide, has appealed to Labor and Social Security Minister Faruk Celik to implement reforms, and asked the International Labor Organization to mediate between the government and Turkish unions.
The Ministries of Justice and Labor did not respond to requests for comment. The government generally argues that a business-friendly environment is a main factor behind the country’s recent economic success.
International scrutiny of Turkey’s treatment of unions could be set to grow. The EU is voicing concern over trade union conditions. Turkey’s 1995 customs union with the European Union prompted many major international companies to set up operations in Turkey, but some of those firms – French car manufacturer Renault and German electronics giant Bosch, in particular -- are increasingly embroiled in conflicts with unions.
More could still be to come.
In 2015, the country will host the G-20 summit of leaders of the world’s 20-most powerful economies. G-20 events inevitably attract controversy, and Turkey, given its imprisonment of union members and restrictive union laws, will be no exception, commentators predict.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.