Turkey's opposition should seize the imitative to demand a new and improved social state
Urgent reforms are needed to rebuild protections for workers, who have paid a deadly price while the economy has boomed
“These are ordinary things in the business of mining” - or so said the then Turkish prime minister, and now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the death of 301 workers in a coal-mine accident at Soma last May.
Even in the wake of yet another mining tragedy - that left 18 coal workers trapped at Ermenek, in the southern province of Karaman in late October - Erdogan’s view appear to increasingly common-place among the Turkish businesses elite.
In this sector alone, some 3,000 workers have died since 1941, although the picture is little better in other Turkish industries, with workers 8.5 times more like to die than their European Union peers.
The high casualty numbers, mean that mine accidents catch media and public attention but this often detracts from the heavy toll workers in other sectors, including agriculture, forestry and construction, are paying. Large numbers also suffer injuries, particularly in rural agriculture areas.
While the problem of industrial accidents is not new, it is worsening. At least 14,555 have died at their work during the 12-year tenure of the present AKP (Justice and Development) government, according to a report by the Worker Health and Occupational Security Assembly, which notes that there has been a sharp increase in the industrial death toll over the past decade.
Since Erdogan came into power the death toll has risen from around 800 deaths in 2003 and 2004, to 1,096 in 2005 and 1,601 in 2006.
Apart from brief respites in 2008 and 2012, when the numbers fell below 900, the annual death toll has continued to rise. It climbed to 1,710 in 2011 but could well exceed that high this year, with 1,600 workers killed in just the first ten months.
Injustice in the work place
Article 2 of the Turkish Constitution stipulates that the Republic of Turkey is a “social state”. According to the Constitutional Court public institutions have the responsibility to realise social justice by ensuring employees’ rights and enhancing their working conditions.
The social character of the Turkish state was introduced by the 1961 Constitution, but the neo-liberal agenda of successive governments and their goal of high economic growth rates have ushered in a system favouring profit and business, over labour.
This trend has been exacerbated under the AKP government through extensive privatisation and the state’s withdrawal from some parts of the economy. It has also been accelerated by the “subcontracting system” which has increased the number of those working in temporary employment - in both the public and private sectors - under short-term contracts. There are today 2.5 million temporary employees, who tend to receive less protection even in the public sector which employs 1.1 million “subcontractors” mainly at the municipal level.
While this can help to increase employers’ profits and appear to help generate growth, the sub-contracting system has many negative side effects. The economic life of temporary workers is extremely fragile and isolated, and they are not allowed to join trade unions. They also tend to receive low wages and are not entitled to full social security benefits. There is often a lack of precise job specification and work training. Unqualified workers can be placed in dangerous jobs without having the necessary knowledge and skills.
The situation of Soma and Ermenek mine workers - recruited also through sub-contracting - demonstrates that such workers cannot even make claims and are denied fundamental rights. While there are ongoing legal investigations concerning the two accidents, the workers cannot initiate any juridical action against their employees and the public institutions since they are devoid of trade union support and cannot individually afford lawyer costs. (Prosecutors on Thursday completed their indictment of eight officials of the company involved in the Soma disaster, for whom they are seeking life sentences).
The public institutions, meanwhile, are inclined to gloss over certain details of the accidents and do not assume any responsibility. One typical example is that the Minister of Work and Social Security, Faruk Celik, has not given permission to the prosecutor’s office to investigate the inspectors responsible for controlling the working conditions at the mine fields.
Return of the social state: a new agenda for the opposition?
As the increasing number of “ordinary” accidents stimulate public attention to the conditions of blue-collar workers, this may be the right time for the opposition parties to refresh their political agenda by developing alternatives to the AKP government’s work and social security policies.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), with the support of the Nationalist Movement’s Party (MHP) and Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), did submit a motion to parliament in October 2013 demanding an investigation over the working conditions in the Soma mining field. It was rejected by the AKP deputies and subsequently removed from parliament’s agenda.
The initiative does, however, indicate the capability for the three opposition parties to act on behalf of the “social state” when there is an evident necessity to oversee the public institutions in ensuring worker rights within a dynamic but chaotic economic environment.
Under the AKP’s 12 years in power, the per capita gross domestic product has trebled from $3,500 to $10,500. However, the richest 20 percent are eight times as rich as the poorest 20 percent.
While subcontracting and the like allows employees to reduce production costs and drive for high profits, the workers are obliged to content themselves with earning low wages without social security for an uncertain period of time.
Turkish capitalism is still in its formation stage and the side effects of pro-profit development model should be alleviated by socially responsible regulations.
Among all the opposition forces, it has so far been CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu who has called for the return of the social state, and if the CHP can effectively strengthen its social-democratic characteristics. If it seizes the initiative, the impact on Turkish politics may yet prove profound.
However; considering the electorates’ existing allegiance to the AKP, the CHP cadres should at the outset develop awareness among the Turkish people to demand better social justice.
- Ozan Serdaroglu has research experience on Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean, with a focus on political and economic development, Euro-Med relations, conflict management, regional cooperation and energy issues.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.