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Hazards, number 144, 2018
Turkey: Unions and campaigners stand up to murder at work
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 President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime, says health and safety campaigner Asli Odman (right). “We don’t go to work, we go to war.”

She says the Turkish safety campaign groups Health and Safety Labour Watch (HSLW) and Support Group for Workers’ Families Seeking Justice (SGWFSJ) have made it their mission to expose the true scale and impact of this war on workers, and to hold those responsible to account.

As many as 30 people are killed in Turkish workplaces every day, she said, but only a small fraction of these deaths are officially recognised and registered as being work-related. Under Turkish law, the definition of work-related accidents and diseases is based on compensation figures. However, claiming compensation is far from straightforward and getting an official diagnosis is “incredibly complicated,” Asli said.

In 2001, a network of progressive academics, journalists, lawyers, doctors and engineers joined forces with workers and trade unionists to set up a joint campaign and to fund investigations into why so many workers were being killed in the country’s shipbuilding and repair yards.

The network now funds a co-ordinator to campaign across all sectors. It carries out painstaking research, scanning local and national, print and online media on a daily basis, compiling and publishing monthly updates and the annual Report on work murders.

“We make work-related deaths visible and part of the public consciousness,” said Asli. The campaign prefers the term ‘work-related murder’, arguing that 100 per cent of work-related fatalities are avoidable.

Far from improving, repressive government policies that started with the state of emergency declared in 2016 have made a bad situation worse. The work of unions and campaigners has been impeded. And HSLW reports a 10 per cent increase in work-related deaths since the state of emergency was declared.

Asli says that while progressive trade unions in Turkey are organising workers and campaigning on workplace health and safety, unions “haven’t caught up with precariousness”. And, unlike the UK, there are no trade union safety reps or health and safety experts within unions. 

If the official figures fall short on ‘murders’ at work, they are wholly absent on occupational diseases. Extrapolating from World Health Organisation (WHO) data, campaigners estimate there are as many as 360,000 cases of occupational disease in Turkey every year. However, the latest official data shows only 597 diagnosed occupational diseases were recording in 2016.

There are only three hospitals that treat occupational diseases in Turkey, in İstanbul, Ankara, and Zonguldak. Workers are reluctant to be diagnosed with occupational diseases “due to the threat of unemployment, problems with disablement, and the lengthy legal and bureaucratic procedures that follow the diagnosis of an occupational disease,” the 2017 Report on work murders notes.

“Officially, no one dies of work-related diseases in Turkey,” says Asli.



MURDER COUNTS   The official Turkish Social Security Institution (SGK) recorded 1,405 work-related fatalities in 2016, almost ten times the rate in the UK. But although this number is shockingly high, it is far lower than the 2,000 or so deaths recorded by campaigners in the annual Report on work murders.


CHILD VICTIMS HSLW says at least 232 child workers died over the four years from 2013 to 2016, with almost half killed in the agriculture sector. Around one in eight were 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, HSLW has evidence child workers as young as six have been killed.


MISSING WOMEN Official figures show only a small minority of fatalities – just over 100 a year – are in women workers. But Asli Odman says women are far more like to be in informal or temporary work, often based at home. She says their deaths are invisible as “their homes are invisible as workplaces”. Cases are rarely reported by the Turkish press.


LITTLE PROTECTION The three sectors with the highest number of deaths in Turkey in 2017 were construction (453), agriculture and forestry (385) and transport (272). The number of workers benefiting from union protection has dropped dramatically. A working generation ago about a quarter of Turkey’s workers were in a union. Today it is in the low single figures, and unions are under attack. Union leaders and protesters against deadly workplace conditions have been arrested with regularity.


NO JUSTICE The Support Group for Workers’ Families Seeking Justice (SGWFSJ) says the courts impose “insignificant monetary penalties” on the parties responsible for workplace deaths and injuries, guaranteeing “criminal impunity” for offenders.


NO HOPE HSLW reports there were at least 90 work-related suicides in in Turkey in 2016, more death missing from the official body count. Campaigner Alsi Odman says workers – including teachers, bank worker, farmers, construction and security workers - are killing themselves as a result of work pressures, unemployment and debt.

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Work is 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.

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