by Emel Baştürk Akca
- Turkey -
Once one of Turkey’s biggest public producers of alcoholic beverages and tobacco products, TEKEL has outlets and factories all over the country. But ever since the Turkish giant opted for privatization and terminated about 10,000 employment contracts, its former employees have been fighting for labor rights protection and equitable compensation. Left with nothing but a termination notice, the workers have converged in the Turkish capital of Ankara and launched what has become the greatest protest the country has seen for 30 years. Camped out in tents in front of the Confederation of Turkish Trade Union’s (TURK-IS) headquarters for more than two months now, the number of strikers continues to grow. Despite freezing cold temperatures and snow, the strike continues to gain momentum and support as more protesters join them daily.
Arzu Güneş, a 38-year-old striker, once worked at TEKEL’s Manisa factory some 300 miles away from the capital city. She came to Ankara at the beginning of the strike with 600 of her colleagues. “I have a son,” she tells me. “I came here for his future. We don’t want to work as wage-slaves. We want to keep our rights. Although the conditions here are hard, I will continue [to strike] until the government meets our demands.”
So far, the Turkish government has not given an inch to TURK-IS, only offering to transfer the workers to “casual laborer” status – a contract that carries no labor rights whatsoever (including the right to organize) and lower pay. Its damning statements and unyielding attitude toward the protesters has drawn criticism from the international community – most notably from members of the European Parliament. Joe Higgins from Ireland first raised the issue in Parliament and further support came from Jürgen Klute, a German member of the Group of the United Left (GUE/NGL) who recently visited the strikers in Turkey.
Addressing the workers Klute said, "This is the most important labor struggle in Europe now. With your strike, you are making not only Turkey but also Europe more democratic...The Turkish government’s attitude towards Tekel workers does not comply with the democratic requirements of Turkey’s EU membership.”
Calling on the Turkish government to engage in negotiations, Klute posted a statement on his website on behalf of the GUE\NGL: ”It is not acceptable that the Turkish government has, until now, refused to enter into negotiations with the workers' trade union...We are deeply convinced that the public articulation of collective and oppositional demand is inseparably connected to the democratic process.”
Though Turkey has been embracing political change since its first democratic elections in 1950, its democracy is still relatively new and fragile. It has only been since 2002 that Turkey has been trying to fulfill the political (and economic) criteria for full EU membership. During this process, Turkey has realized a series of legal arrangements and regulations to strengthen democratic rights. The EU not only observes to what extent these arrangements transfer into practice and but also demands new legal arrangements. Of particular concern to the EU have been Turkey’s problems with freedom of expression, unionization and the right to organize.
TURK-IS reports that the International Confederation (ITUC), an umbrella organization of unions in 155 countries, is planning to organize an international action to pressure the Turkish government to begin dialog with the workers. And European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) Special Adviser Jeff Bridgford visited Ankara in early February. Pointing out that the workers have been living in spartan conditions, he appealed for an end to the crisis “as soon as possible”. The ETUC issued an official statement, calling on the Turkish government “to ensure that negotiations begin immediately, with a view to transferring these workers to other public enterprises with their full employee benefits, in accordance with the law.”
In the past two months, the TEKEL workers’ strike has become much more than just an isolated movement. It has organically transformed into a symbol of hope for all those in Turkey who have suffered unemployment, low wages, poverty and unequal rights. Along with the support of both EU leaders and international NGOs, six labor and civil servant confederations in Turkey have declared their solidarity with the tobacco workers, while retailers have mobilized to supply the workers’ with essentials to meet their daily needs. And everyone from concerned citizens, university students, academics and artists from all over the country have visited the site of the strike to express their support.
For forty-year-old Ferit Demir, the crisis is a matter of dignity and justice. He worked with Arzu Günes at the same factory for 12 years until his job was eliminated. He has been in Ankara for more than 70 days and is coping with life in the tents like the other workers, but the strain is wearing on him. “We are struggling for social justice and a life of honor. We all have family and children. Our rights are very important for us – we all want to bring home the bacon. But the government’s attitude towards the workers is not fair,” he says.
Despite the hardship of the strike, Demir and his colleagues are determined to either recover their jobs or transfer to ones with comparable benefits. “The Government wants to end our protest by using force,” he explains, “[but] we will stand our ground. We do or we die.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Emel Baştürk Akca was born in Ankara, Turkey and graduated from Ankara University with a Master’s in Faculty of Communication. She earned her doctorate degree in Journalism from the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Ege (Aegean). During her Ph.D. program, Emel studied at the Old Dominion University in West Virginia, USA. She has published several articles and one book on media discourse, discourse analysis, identity, representation and political communication. Currently Dr. Akca teaches journalism in Turkey.