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       Hazards, number 145, 2019
#IWMD19 special report: Making work-related murders visible in Turkey
An alliance of unions, experts and campaigners in Turkey is determined to make visible the preventable carnage in the country’s workplaces. Andrea Oates spoke to prominent campaigner and safety expert Asli Odman about the challenges they face.


Turkish workers have a slogan to describe life under the current regime, says health and safety campaigner Asli Odman, “We don’t go to work, we go to war.”

Asli Odman was the international guest speaker at the annual UK Hazards Campaign Conference at Keele University in July 2018. She told UK-based trade union activists and safety campaigners about her work to reveal the true scale and impact of this war on workers, and to hold those responsible to account, through the Turkish safety campaign groups Health and Safety Labour Watch (HSLW) and Support Group for Workers’ Families Seeking Justice (SGWFSJ). 

Making work-related murders visible

Between 20 and 30 people are killed in Turkish workplaces every day, she said, but only a small fraction of these deaths is officially recognised and registered as being work-related. Under Turkish law, the definition of work-related accidents and diseases is limited and claiming compensation is far from straightforward. Getting an official diagnosis, especially for an occupational disease, is “incredibly complicated” Asli told the conference.

In 2007, a network of progressive academics, journalists, lawyers, doctors and engineers joined forces with workers and trade unionists to set up a campaign to investigate why so many workers were being killed in the Tuzla shipbuilding and repair yards east of Istanbul.

The HSLW network now funds a co-ordinator to work on the campaign across all industrial and service sectors,for the whole country,and is aiming to set up similar groups in other cities.

It carries out painstaking and independent research, scanning local and national, print and online media on a daily basis, in order to publish monthly updates and the annual Report on work murders with only one dedicated professional coordinator and tens of volunteers.

“We try to make work-related deaths visible and part of the public consciousness,” said Asli .The campaign uses the term murder rather than death, arguing that 100 per cent of work-related fatalities are avoidable.

Progressive trade unions in Turkey are organising workers and campaigning on workplace health and safety, as the recent action at the construction site of the third Istanbul airport shows [see Mega construction projects leading to mega deaths below]. But Asli says unions “haven’t caught up with precariousness” and, unlike the situation in the UK, there is no legal basis for workers’ safety reps in workplaces. She says there is also a lack of health and safety expertise within unions.

Officially no one dies of occupational disease in Turkey

The figures on work-related murder HSLW has collated [see Box 3: Work-related deaths in Turkey – facts and figures] are the tip of the iceberg. They include only the 1923 workers killed immediately in incidents in the workplace. The lack of accurate official statistics on occupational diseases means they are “totally invisible” in Turkey, Asli told the conference, but every year thousands more people die of undiagnosed occupational diseases.

Health and safety campaigners estimate there are as many as 360,000 cases of occupational disease every year.This is based on World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between four and 12 cases of occupational diseases are expected for every thousand workers. The latest (2016) data from the Turkish Social Security Institution (SGK) [see Box 3: Work-related deaths in Turkey – facts and figures] shows only 597 diagnosed occupational diseases annually, and according to Asli, “Officially, no one dies of work-related diseases in Turkey.”

The 2017 Report on work-related murders explains that the very bureaucratic diagnostic system for occupational diseases in Turkey prevents the relationship between working conditions and illness being established.

It says there are only three hospitals that treat occupational diseases in Turkey, in Istanbul, Ankara, and Zonguldak, while workers are reluctant to be diagnosed with occupational diseases “due to the threat of unemployment, problems with disablement, debt bondage, fear of loss of job, and the lengthy legal and bureaucratic procedures that follow the diagnosis of an occupational disease”.

No research into high rates of work-related suicide

As well as high rates of work-related murder, HSLW also reports that there were at least 90 work-related suicides in Turkey in 2016. It says workers are killing themselves as a result of work pressures, unemployment and debt. They include a primary school teacher who jumped from the sixth floor of a building after learning he was not among 30,000 candidates appointed to a public sector teaching position. He became the 40th graduate teacher in the last two years to kill himself after not being appointed to a job after university, prompting a debate in the Turkish parliament.

HSLW has also found cases of work-related suicide among bank workers, security workers, farmers and construction workers, but says “there is not one single theoretical study, written research or successful penal case in Turkey” on this issue. The campaign links the increase in workplace suicides with the rise in precarious work and unemployment as well as debt and bullying.

Asli explains that in 2016 the Turkish parliament passed a new law giving private employment agencies the right to hire workers on very short agreements and “rent” them to employers. This provides more flexibility for large companies, adding to “existing and more widespread forms of subcontracting agreement, the contract manufacturing system, unpaid family work and the high rate of informality at around 35-40 per cent leading to purely illegal work. ”She describes a climate where dangerous jobs are accepted at the cost of life linked to de-facto debt bondage and says Turkey has the highest level of private household debt across Europe.

State of emergency has increased work-related deaths

If conditions were not already bad enough for Turkish workers and trade unions [see Box 1: Trade Unions in Turkey], the state of emergency, declared in July 2016 and brought to an end in July 2018 when the presidential system was officially introduced, made things even worse. HSLW reported a 10 per cent increase in work-related deaths since the state of emergency was declared [see Infographic in Hazards Conference presentation].

The human rights non-governmental organisation (NGO) Human Rights Watch explains: “The two-year state of emergency was imposed following a 2016 violent coup attempt in which 250 people were killed. During it the government was allowed to rule by decree without adequate oversight by parliament or the courts. Turkish authorities dismissed over 130,000 public officials for alleged coup or terrorism links, with courts holding around 77,000 in pretrial detention on those charges, while many more were put on trial. Many media outlets were closed down.”

Although the state of emergency formally ended on 18 July 2018, the new presidential system has consolidated Erdogan’s hold on power, it says. Asli told the Hazards conference that the system is “by-passing the parliament and any types of checks and balances” and has created a “corporatocracy”, increasing the power of corporations and making work more precarious. At the same time, she reported: “The freedom of the media and research in Turkey is shrinking with each day.”

Mega construction projects leading to mega deaths

The construction sector is responsible among the biggest number of deaths in Turkey and Asli says these are being accelerated by the regime's “mega projects” which are leading to “mega deaths”. As well as killing workers, she says this “urbanicide” is a “construction frenzy” that is also destroying cities and the environment.

These projects include the construction of a third bridge over the Bosphorus strait, urban transformation projects, huge shopping malls, centralized hospitals, gate community projects, motorways, mines, energy transmission lines, a third Istanbul airport and an artificial second Bosporus strait parallel to the natural one called 'kanalistanbul'.

Despite the post-coup crackdown, thousands of workers at the airport construction site have recently taken strike action in protest at both working and living conditions there.

In September 2018, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) reported there had been 42 deaths at the site and described labour camps for workers as “substandard with poor food and bedbugs in the sleeping quarters”. The CİMER presidential communication centre later confirmed that 52 workers have been killed building the new airport since 2003. Migrant workers from countries including Nepal, Vietnam, Pakistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Malaysia are working alongside thousands of workers from Turkey, many unpaid for more than six months.

“Instead of addressing the urgent and legitimate demands of the workers, the gendarmeri ehas backed the construction companies and cracked down on the protest, arresting more than 400 workers”, it reported. It was the first time in Turkish history so many workers were arrested at the same time. The president of the Progressive Union of Construction Workers (Disk/Dev Yapı-İş ) and spokesperson for the airport workers, Özgür Karabulut, and members of the independent construction workers' union İnşaat-İş were arrested and detained by police for taking part in the protests. Although they were released, they faced a 13- hour first trial and their case is still pending.

The campaign for justice for work murders

As well as demanding an end to the“everyday state of emergency” and for trade union freedoms and workers’ rights, health and safety campaigners are also calling for justice for the families of those killed at work. Asli also volunteers with the Support Group for Workers’ Families Seeking Justice (SGWFSJ). The group was set up in 2008 following the industrial disaster at an unlicensed fire works factory in the Davutpaşa area of Istanbul which killed more than 20 people and injured another 130.

The group publishes the annual Almanach of Work-related Murders documenting the details of every person killed by work, as well as special reports on issues including child labour and refugee workers, asbestos and urban transformation, women’s health and safety, corporate crime tables and megaprojects.

Since 2011, the network of families has held vigils on the first Sunday of the month in the central main street of Istiklal in Istanbul. The hour-long Vigils for Justice and Conscience mark the monthly death-toll of work, and provide information about pending criminal trials and changes in legislation. The group also marks International Workers Memorial Day on 28 April with a march to prevent future deaths and is campaigning for official recognition of 28 April as the Commemoration and Mourning Day for Workers to “Remember the Dead, Fight for the Living”.



Box 1: Trade unions in Turkey

A 2016 profile of trade unions in Turkey by Walton Pantland at the global Industriall union explains that unions in Turkey “face an uphill struggle in an increasingly challenging environment”.He sets out that following a period of strength in the 1970s, the 1980 military coup lead to severe repression. The military government designed labour laws to discourage unionisation and banned the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DİSK) until 1992.

Erdoğan’s AK Party came to power in 2002, 19 years after the official military ruleIt introduced a new Law on Trade Unions and Collective Labour Agreements in 2012 to supersede the laws under the dictatorship, but Panton says it is still far from ILO standards, with union density in the private sector reduced to three per cent and Turkish workers at severe risk of exploitation and abuse.

He points to the homicide of 301 coal miners at the semi-privatised Soma mine as “the most compelling argument for why Turkey needs strong unions” and says it happened as a result of “greed, incompetence and corruption” and “a focus on profit before safety”.
And while Turkey has ratified ILO conventions on freedom of association and protection of the right to organise, he says “fundamental rights remain under pressure”. He points to a 2015 Labour Studies Community study showing 4,362 workers were dismissed for defending their rights, with 2,000 dismissed just for joining a union and 2,104 dismissed for taking action.

He also says the right to strike is “only on paper”. A legal provision for strikes and lockouts to be postponed by 60 days if deemed “prejudicial to public health or national security” is “actually a ban”.

Sources Unions in Turkey: holding the line for workers, Industriall
Public services union UNISON has recently published a new campaign briefing on workers’ and human rights in Turkey.

Box 2: Campaigning for justice for families

The Support Group for Workers’ Families Seeking Justice (SGWFSJ) explains that, in most cases, the judicial system considers whether employers are liable for causing injury on the basis of negligence and imposes “insignificant monetary penalties” on the parties responsible, meaning “criminal impunity” for offenders.

The group is campaigning for justice for the families of those killed in the Soma Mine massacre and the Davutpaşa explosion, and cases including following. It describes how:

TV production worker Selin Erdem was killed in May 2012 when she was hit by a food supply vehicle on the set of a TV series. SGWFSJ says she was on a break on the May Day, but there was no safe rest area. Her death was not recognised as being work-related and was instead treated as road traffic accident;

Five workers were killed in April 2012 after being sent to carry out repairs within a reservoir at a hydroelectric plant. They were sent out in a paddle boat, which overturned in the partially-frozen reservoir and froze to death. A rescue team did not arrive until around three hours after the incident. The operation manager of the company was charged with causing their deaths through negligence, but released when the prosecutor decided the workers went onto the reservoir of their own free will; and

Ten construction workers were killed in September 2014 when a lift carrying them at the Torunlar Centre Project in a central business district of Istanbul fell from the 34th floor. It was not an isolated incident, according to an expert report. However, a court found there was no need for a prosecution to be brought against the partners of the company that owned and directed the construction project.
End of Box

Box 3: Work-related deaths in Turkey – facts and figures

The Turkish Social Security Institution (SGK) publishes official statistics on occupational injuries, diseases and deaths. In 2016 it recorded 1,405 work-related fatalities. But although this number is shockingly high, it is far lower than the 1,970 deaths reported by Turkish campaign group Health and Safety Labour Watch (HSLW) for that year.

Its latest 2018 Report on work murders shows at least 1923 workers were killed last year, including many children and young people. Twenty three of those killed were child workers aged 14 or under, 44 were aged between 15 and 17,and 285 were aged between 18 and 28.

HSLW says at least 232 child workers died over the four years from 2013 to 2016, with almost half killed in the seasonal agriculture sector and around one in eight of those killed child migrants. It explains “child labour begins at a very young age in Turkey” and although it is illegal to employ children under the age of 15 , it has found child workers as young as six have been killed.

Older workers over retirement age have also been killed. Many of these deaths are not officially documented, but HSLW recorded 98 deaths among those aged 65 and overlast year.

“Due to poverty and practical elimination of retirement rights through legal regulations, older workers were pushed to precarious employment and became an important source of the precariat pool,” it reports.

Although the majority, 1,804, of those killed in 2018 were men, 119 women were also killed. According to HSLW, women constitute the majority of those working in unregistered work including temporary agricultural work, unpaid family work, home-based production, temporary cleaning and care jobs which “stand somewhere in-between paid and unpaid labour”. More than 40 per cent of those killed were working in agriculture and forestry. Health and safety campaigner Asli Odman says many women worker’s deaths are invisible as “their homes, streets and informal workshops are invisible as workplaces” and rarely get reported by the Turkish press.

The three sectors with the highest number of deaths in 2018 were agriculture and forestry (457), construction (438) and transport (233). There were also high numbers of deaths in the metal (116), mining (66) and energy sectors (63).  HSLW says one of the reasons for the increase in deaths in these sectors in the previous year (2017) is the state of emergency and statutory decrees (see below) which have made it impossible for workers, even organised workers, to defend their rights. Asli told those gathered at the conference that union density in Turkey dropped from 24 per cent in 1988 to just 4 per cent in 2013 according to the comparative OECD union density data. Global Industriall union figures (see Box 1: Trade Unions in Turkey) show union density in the private sector had fallen to just 3 per cent by 2016.

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We go to war

An alliance of unions, experts and campaigners in Turkey is determined to make visible the preventable carnage in the country’s workplaces. Andrea Oates spoke to prominent campaigner and safety expert Asli Odman about the challenges they face.

Making work-related murders visible
Officially no one dies of occupational disease in Turkey
No research into high rates of work-related suicide
State of emergency has increased work-related deaths
Mega construction projects leading to mega deaths
The campaign for justice for work murders

Related items
Box 1: Trade Unions in Turkey
Box 2: Campaigning for Justice for Families
Box 3: Work-related deaths in Turkey – facts and figures

Also see
Work is war: Unions and campaigners stand up to murder at work

More information
Health and Safety Labour Watch
Support Group for Families Seeking Justice
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