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Turkey Needs a “Labor Rights Spring“

(Photo: Veyis Polat / Flickr)

The anti-government protests in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, and the brutal response of Turkish riot police, have brought global attention to the authoritarian tendencies of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Since first winning power in 2002, the Erdoğan government has also exercised significant repression in the area of workers’ rights. It has limited the rights to organize and strike, and allowed companies, including European multinationals, to violate workers’ rights with virtual impunity.

Union repression has been the norm in modern Turkey

Turkey has repeatedly restricted labor rights in recent times. Indeed, with the exception of brief periods in the 1960s and 1970s, the systematic repression of independent unions has been a constant theme in the 100-year history of the Turkish Republic. Repression of unions and strikes followed the military coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980, and even after the return to civilian rule, the government placed severe restrictions on workers’ right to organize. Under 1983 labor legislation – a product of the 1980 coup that stayed in place until late 2012 – unions were required to win majority support at the workplace and demonstrate that they represented at least 10 percent of all the workers in their respective economic sector.

As a result of these repressive policies and practices, union membership has fallen more in Turkey in the past decade than in any other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country. At below 6 percent – and approximately 3.5 percent in the private sector – union membership is now lower in Turkey than in any other OECD country.

The AKP has also intensified the neoliberal employment policies of previous governments. Precarious and flexible work arrangements are now the norm for millions of Turks. Employers frequently use subcontracting, which now affects over 1 million jobs, as a tactic to undermine unionization campaigns. In its quest to promote growth, the AKP government has stressed the country’s low wages and has willingly sacrificed labor rights in its quest for more foreign direct investment. As a result of the AKP’s economic policies, about half the working population earns close to the minimum wage, now 978 Turkish Lira (about $521) per month, which is considered significantly below an adequate living wage.

New legislation but the old authoritarianism

Under pressure from the European Union and International Labor Organization, the AKP government enacted the Law of Trade Unions and Collective Agreements at the end of last year. But the new legislation – which was shaped in large part by employer organizations – offers few genuine protections for workers seeking to form unions. Indeed, in certain key respects – including bargaining rights for new unions, penalties for unlawful management practices and additional restrictions on strikes – it may be worse than the 1983 legislation it is replacing. In the area of bargaining rights, the sector threshold for unions has been reduced from 10 percent to 3 percent, but the number of sectors has also been reduced and their size increased, and thus for some unions, the 3 percent threshold may actually be more difficult to achieve than the old 10 percent. In addition, the law reduces the already weak penalties for unlawful terminations for employees at small and medium-sized enterprises and for employees with less than six months seniority, who together constitute about one half of the Turkish labor force. Thus, contrary to the hopes of international organizations and independent Turkish unions, the new law continues the country’s old tradition of authoritarianism and does little to strengthen labor rights and freedoms.

In the public sector, where collective bargaining was illegal until 1995, the situation is no better. The AKP has attempted to suppress independent unions and replace them with government-controlled unions. As a result, membership in the left-wing KESK public-union federation has declined by 8 percent in the past decade, while membership in unions affiliated with the pro-government MEMUR-SEN confederation has increased 15 fold.

Employer anti-unionism is endemic

In the private sector, the current situation for unions is dire. Employer violations of workers’ rights are endemic. Employers routinely harass and intimidate workers who try to form unions. They fire union activists, retaliate against union members in the workplace, pressure workers to resign from the union and interfere with the free choice of non-union-members. While these tactics are unlawful, they usually go completely unpunished.

Some anti-union tactics adopted by Turkish employers will sound familiar to observers of American labor relations. First, union activists are frequently sacked or threatened with dismissal for their union activities. Second, the penalties against unfair dismissals are weak and do not act as a deterrent against unlawful behavior – employers are ordered to reinstate workers but can choose to avoid reinstatement by paying a minimal amount of compensation. Third, union members often experience discrimination within the workplace – they are denied promotions and pay raises and are transferred to less desirable positions which limit their contact with other employees. Fourth, non-union employees are exposed to aggressive anti-union propaganda, including mandatory captive audience speeches and one-on-one meetings between employees and their supervisors.

The termination of workers for union activities is a widespread problem in Turkey. The International Trade Union Confederation has found that more workers are fired for union activities in Turkey than in any other country in Europe, while one of Turkey’s leading union officials explains that “to be a union activist in Turkey is the same thing as being unemployed. And being unemployed is the same as being poor.” As economic insecurity has increased for many workers, so too has their fear of getting fired for union activities.

In addition to these more familiar tactics, Turkish employers frequently promote “yellow unions” that negotiate weak collective agreements and are usually a cynical ploy to undermine independent unions. They have used blacklists of union activists, “labor spies” and engaged the support of local imams to preach that that union are “un-Islamic” or even associated with the Kurdish Workers Party, which has been involved in a long-running war with the Turkish government. Finally, employers have used police and private security guards to intimidate and harass pro-union workers and union organizers.

Some of the worst labor rights violators in the private sector have been European-based multinational corporations that respect the rights of workers in their home countries and adopt voluntary agreements that require them to respect workers’ rights wherever they operate. Nonetheless, they have systematically violated the rights of their workers in Turkey.

Unlawful and aggressive anti-unionism at DHL Turkey

Deutsche Post, the world’s largest logistics company, owns DHL, which enjoys a good relationship with its German union, Ver.di. DHL’s own code of conduct states that the company respects ILO’s conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining and the company is a signatory to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) – a voluntary mechanism to encourage corporations to adopt socially responsible practices which prohibits employer interference with workers’ right to form a union.

But none of these practices and principles appears to apply in Turkey, where the company has engaged in an aggressive and unlawful campaign of coercion and interference. Management has fired dozens of union activists, claiming they were terminated for “poor performance” or violations of company policy, which is what Turkish employers always claim when they sack workers for union activities.In a rare defense of workers’ rights, the Turkish courts rejected the company’s justification in four recent termination cases and ruled that the workers were clearly fired because of their union activities.

DHL management has also pressured workers to resign from the union, retaliated against union members at the workplace, and warned non-members against joining the transport and logistics union, Tumtis. Starting late 2012, management has allegedly coerced and bribed workers into joining a “yellow union,” Tasima-Is, established in November 2012 with the specific purpose of undermining the Tumtis campaign at DHL Turkey.

In response to growing evidence of aggressive anti-unionism in Turkey, DHL executives in Bonn continue to claim that the allegations of anti-union coercion, retaliation and interference are the invention of Tumtis and its allies in the international union movement. But it is increasingly clear that this position is untenable and sooner or later the company will need to acknowledge the ugly reality of the anti-unionism of its Turkish management.

More like Saudi Arabia than Sweden: IKEA’s race to the bottom in Turkey

Similar violations of workers’ rights have occurred at IKEA Turkey. According to employees at IKEA’s five stores – two in Istanbul, and one each in Ankara, Izmir and Bursa – management has been guilty of very un-Swedish-like behavior. In common with DHL, IKEA enjoys a cooperative relationship with its union in Sweden and elsewhere in northern Europe. But in Turkey, IKEA management has pressured workers to resign from the union, Koop-Is, and has retaliated against union members in the workplace.Pro-union workers have been transferred to less desirable positions that limit their contact with non-union workers and have receive poor performance evaluations, which determine pay increases, promotions and are used by management to drive union activists out.

IKEA Turkey is a legally independent franchisee of Inter-IKEA, which is based in Delft, Holland. IKEA’s Turkish managers have made sure that employees understand that the company is not bound by IKEA’s “pro-union practices” in Northern Europe. Last summer, one senior Turkish manager told employees at a captive meeting, “IKEA doesn’t have a union in Saudi Arabia and it doesn’t need one in Turkey, either.” As his comments suggest, IKEA’s labor practices in Turkey are more like those in Saudi Arabia – a country that represses independent unions – than those of Sweden, where companies generally have cooperative relationships with their unions. In response to the allegations of aggressive anti-unionism, Inter-IKEA has hired the consultant firm Price Waterhouse Coopers, which will likely conclude that management must improve its human resource practices, but that there is no evidence of systematic violations of the right to organize. But until IKEA deals with the real problem – the determination of its Turkish management to avoid unionization at all costs – no amount of whitewashing will make a difference. Both IKEA and DHL have resisted signing an international framework agreement with a global union federation that would ensure that labor standards are upheld wherever they operate throughout the world.

Setting the standard or lowering the bar?

Firms such as DHL and IKEA should be setting a higher standard for labor standards in Turkey instead of lowering the bar even further. European multinationals must live up to their commitments to abide by international standards and respect the rights of their workers in Turkey, just as they do in Germany and Sweden. Instead, they are practicing a double standard by upholding labor rights in Northern Europe but not in Turkey, and they are guilty of hypocrisy by signing up to the UNGC, thereby portraying themselves as socially responsible corporations but failing to live up to its principles in Turkey.

Robust, independent unions are a key component of a free and open democracy. Turkey desperately needs a “labor rights spring” that would foster and strengthen independent unions. That will require both less authoritarian and more enlightened political leadership as well as multinational corporations that respect fundamental labor rights in Turkey.

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