A New Social Movement is Growing in Turkey: Precarious Workers Movement

FROM The Revolutionary Trade Union of Health Workers
* Introduction
* Turkish Working Class and Precarity
* Precarity and Trade Union Struggle
* The Sources of Today’s Struggles of Precarious Workers
* The Precarious Workers and The United Struggle
* Towards A Social Movement of Precarious Workers

There is uproar among the precarious workers in Turkey. Precarious workers are now practicing some spontaneous actions of struggle, partly isolated from each other. Activists who try to contribute to these struggles and who have some contacts are in search of ways of combining these experiments actions into a united and common melting pot. There is a favorable base in Turkey for uniting the precarious workers who struggle or want to struggle for their basic needs; for achieving common goals; for defining the problem of precarity as a general problem of the society; and for complementing these efforts with the struggle for basic rights and freedoms at regional and national scales.

Turkish Working Class and Precarity
Precarious work has become the main characteristic of employement for a great majority of the Turkish working class. There are 16 million wage earners in Turkey of which 14 million are workers in general; and a 1.5 million of which are public employees. There are only 4.8 million workers who have social security, who are employed in public and private sector; and only 700.000 of them are members of trade unions and have collective agreements. 700.000 public employees are members of newly founded trade unions; but they do not have the right to strike and to have collective bargaining. State is actively involved in shaping various modes of precarious work as a part of the privatization policy. At the moment, there are 50.000 workers who are employed in such types of work but the number is growing fast.

In sum, 65% of the wage earning population of Turkey consist of precarious workers; the majority of the work in industrial production and service sector is done by precarious workers.

90% of the textile industry jobs, which is the main export sector of the Turkish economy, are sweatshop jobs. 80% of the workers employed in these sweatshop companies are unregistered-informal workers.

In the large metal and oil-chemical factories, production processes are sub-divided and each of these sub-divisions are transferred to subcontractor companies. In these sectors there is a massive subordinate industry formed by small and medium business. These small and medium scale firms are generally informal.

Major works of municipal services are too done by subcontractor firms. The workers of these firms are mainly unregistered.

The same situation is relevant in sectors such as scavenging, security and marketing…

Precarity and Trade Union Struggle
From the 1980 coup till today, all attempts of precarious workers for organizing in trade unions were confronted with massive firings. State, LaborAct and the Trade Unions support this policy of the bosses. This has been the main reason of defeats of the precarious workers’ struggles who are employed by subcontractor companies. Indeed, the large industrial and service companies and the State prefer to work with subcontractor companies especially for sustaining unorganized working conditions.

The number of unionized workers is decreasing consistently because of the divisions in the production process among the big industrial and service corporations and their transfer to subcontractor companies. There were 2.5 million unionized workers 20 years ago; this number decreased to 1.5 million 5 years ago; and now it is only 700.000.

Big companies forced trade unions to adapt this process with various methods and they were successful.

The first method of this policy is to increase the wage level of unionized workers in the factory while the scale of irregular work increases. In this way, trade unions are protecting their total income; but naturally the number of unionized workers is reduced.

The second method is to buy off the trade union bureaucrats with bribery.

Third method is to use the threat of transfer of production facilities to Eastern Europe, North African and Asian countries if opposition grows against precarisation.

Traditional centre of the trade unions movement did not spend any effort for constructing a counter strategy of struggle and organization against precarity, except DISK (progressive trade union confederation of Turkey,”The Confederation of Revolutionary Workers Trade Unions”). DISK has prepared some programs about precarity but could not implement them because the most effective affiliates of the confederation did not join the implementation.

The Roots of the Precarious Workers’ Struggle
Efforts to organize precarious workers developed from several channels.

First of these efforts were the attempt of the socialist activists of the trade unions. These attempts are performed especially in textile, metal, petrochemistry, printing, transportation, dock, and health sectors. But only a few of them were partly successful. But, a special action network emerged between the activists who tried to unionize precarious workers.

The second channel was formed by the initiatives deriving from the public employee’s movement that emerged in the 1990’s. These initiatives are still developing mainly in distribution of energy, health and education sector.

a- Firstly, distribution of energy services of the state was transformed to companies and was divided to sub-works and led to subcontractors. Some leading figures of the public employees unions in this sector (Energy, Road and Construction Union- Enerji Yapi Yol Sen) intervened in this process. They began to organize the workers of subcontractor firms in their own unions; they forced the authorities of distribution of energy to add some clauses (that included the basic rights of workers) to their contracts with subcontractors; they threatened subcontractors with using their positional authority against them.

Finally, some workers of subcontractor firms were unionized and attained some de facto collective bargaining rights. Now, nearly 1000 workers of subcontractor firms in the sector are unionized and 75% of them have collective agreements.

b- Governments have been implementing the deregulation policy in the health sector for years. Main tool of deregulation is to employ health personnel with various types of individual contracts. State divides the public health institutions into two parts in terms of internal division of work: direct health services and general services. For general services, like cleaning, cooking, etc. the members of the governing bodies of the public hospitals are establishing “foundations and associations” in order “to support hospital’s services”. These foundations are employing workers with precarious conditions and working as subcontractors of the hospitals. Sometimes, they are employing skilled health workers as “reserve” personnel.

In direct health services which require skilled personnel, state is developing a policy of some kind of individual contracts. Skilled personnel like doctors, nurses, radiologists and biologists are forced to work in worse conditions than the general level of public employees.

Some activists of The Trade Union of Public Employees in Health and Social Services (SES) organized some resistance against these types of employment. These efforts were not regular or consistent and continuous in the beginning. There were some initiatives for unionization of health foundation’s and association’s workers. Some individual contracts were cancelled by Courts of law and some skilled personnel regained their statutes as public employees. Two years ago, some activists of SES and some other militant workers from former struggles revitalized an old trade union, Dev Saglık Is (Revolutionary Trade Union of Health Workers) and began to plan a
new organizational strategy. They began to organize skilled personnel of the hospitals of the SSK (Institution of Social Security for Workers) who are employed with individual contracts. There were 4250 workers in this status in 8 big hospitals. Finally, 1 year later,the State cancelled their individual contracts and accepted them as public employees. After this struggle, Dev Saglik Is became an effective centre for precarious health workers. Now the union has a network in public and private sector’s subcontracting health companies.

c- In the last years, especially in the secondary schools, public authorities started to employ teachers with individual contracts or as part-time workers. This is part of a general deregulation project for education. But the movement of the public employees is mainly based on teachers; so, among precarious workers in education sector, there is a strong tendency for struggling against their working conditions and for unionization.

The third source of struggle is the neighborhood organizations that are developing in slums. Along with the actions against poverty, the militants of the People’s Houses (Halkevleri – the main organization of the urban poor) often face the irregular work phenomenon. Many of the home-working women, workers in workshops, workers in subcontractor and clothing companies want to struggle against precarity and to join seminars about their basic rights and to express their demands as a social movement.

Worker’s Commissions of People’s Houses, that are founded on this dynamism as theis base, are making agitation and propaganda to the mass of precarious workers who live in the slums and work in the workplaces around these settlements. They are organizing some protest actions against companies that force precarious working conditions to the workers.

Precarious Workers and The United Struggle
In the last year, union activists who are working with the precarious workers started to feel that there is an upward trend in the struggle.

Firstly, 4250 workers who are employed by the SSK with individual labor contracts, got organized in a movement, against their working conditions in Dev Saglik Is. Workers changed their status and became public employees and Dev Saglik Is attained a better workplace relation in 5 hospitals of the SSK.

After a short time, 200 workers who were employed by a pseudo subcontractor company in the quality-control and storing section of the Pirelli tire factory in Izmit/Kosekoy, were organized by the neighborhood organization of People’s Houses, under Transportation Workers Union (Nakliyat Is). But All the workers were fired due to this organization. Fired workers started a resistance actions in front of the factory by pitching up their tents. Resistance still continues today. Through their struggle the Workers gained large compensations from the company in the Court Of Law.

Meanwhile the Enerji Yapi Yol Sen increased the number of its collective agreements up to 4 in energy distribution sector and established some ties with other workers from various sectors’ subcontractors.

In the region of Terazidere/Istanbul, where the hosiery factories are found, a protest began. For 15 days, workers from 3 big hosiery factories started strikes, meetings and demonstrations on the streets. They founded a regional Assembly of Hosiery Workers. But after several months, this Assembly was put to sleep by the leaders of the movement.

In a postal centre of Istanbul, Post Office of Bahcelievler, workers of the subcontractor company that is responsible of mail distribution are organized in a newly founded innovative trade union, Independent Trade Union of Worker’s (BIS); and began a strike in order to make a special collective bargaining with the subcontractor company. They were alone when they began to strike; but in a short time, the regional branch of the People’s Houses got in touch with them; and established a strong solidarity network with the postal workers. Postal workers and the People’s Houses are now preparing to transform the strike into a starting point for a general propaganda campaign for the precarious workers of the whole region. Meanwhile BİS has been closed down by a court decision claiming that its founders cannot legally prove that they really work in some workplaces.

The activists of all these struggles are now composing a broad network for solidarity in this process. And, the pioneers of these struggles came to realize that it was necessary to construct a social movement around the problems of the precarious workers.

Towards A Social Movement of Precarious Workers
The first spark emerged in the “City Festival for Solidarity and Commonality: The Poor are Meeting, The Women are Talking 19-24 August – Izmit”. The last day of the festival began with a solidarity demonstration in front of Pirelli factory. There were 2.500 poor people in the demonstration. They were mainly precarious workers and most of them were organized in the People’s Houses.

The activists of the People’s Houses decided that if the militant network of Worker’s Commissions of the People’s Houses would work to form a broad based precarious workers movement, it could happen! “To begin a movement on the streets of 5-6 cities with 500-600 people in each region” is sufficient in creating a common conciousness around any problem. If precarious workers who are in struggle now would meet in forums about the problems and solutions about precarity, they could find the original language and rhetoric of their movement.

First attempt was developed in Izmit, the city of the resistance of Pirelli/Ekolas and the People’s Houses, where they have a high flexibility in action. The activists of People’s Houses, a group of Ekolas Workers, a group of trade union activists from various unions and a group of women from the Cooperative of Women Solidarity came together and started a propaganda campaign on the problem of precarity. They published two pamphlets about precarity. 50.000 pamphlets were distributed in front of workplaces, bus stops and in all public places with daily demonstrations in two months. They pasted 5.000 posters on the walls of the city. They organized some seminars among the poor people. These activities produced a broad network of relationship among the mass of precarious workers and also outside of the region.

This success of the campaign encouraged an appeal for a regional forum of precarious workers. Organizer of the forum was the People’s Houses. This would be a first-step meeting for broadening precarious worker’s initiatives in the biggest industrial region of Turkey, Istanbul-İzmit.

The forum is organized on December 8th 2003-Sunday, in Gebze, a big industrial town between Istanbul and Izmit. It was given the name of “Problems and Solutions of Workers of Subcontractor Companies”. Organizers of the forum were a group of teachers who had individual contracts and the Gebze branch of People’s Houses. The forum was supported by regional bodies of some progressive trade unions. Teachers from Gebze and Izmit, health workers from Istanbul, postal workers from Bahcelievler, Ekolas workers from Izmit, textile workers from Gebze, Dilovası, Kartal, Pendik and Izmit joined to the forum. Regional bodies of progressive trade unions sent some representatives to the forum; they were from Dock Worker’s, Transportation Worker’s, Health Worker’s, Printing Industry Worker’s, Mining Worker’s, Metal Worker’s, General Services Worker’s and the Banking Workers Unions of DISK; Municipality Worker’s Union from Turk-Is and the General Services Worker’s Union from Hak-Is. There were 300 workers in the hall.

The workers who spoke in the forum, listed their problems in 8 main subjects: working times, wages, social security, job security, workplace security, national and sexual discrimination, suppressions on the right to establish unions, suppressions on the right to struggle.

At the end of the forum; precarious workers decided

To organize broad activities to create consciousness about these problems among the mass of precarious workers.

b- To organize regional forums of precarious workers.

c- To organize a national forum after long and broad based regional campaigns that will include forums, panels, demonstrations, pamphlets and posters.

d- To produce from this forum a general framework that will provide a continuos struggle platform against precarity.

According with these decisions, in December, our steps are these:

1- On December 18th a Solidarity Fest for strikers of Pirelli and Postal Workers, in Izmit. We expect around 2500 precarious workers to join to the fest.

2- An educational and planning meeting with 150 union activists from 15 cities and various sectors on December 20-21.

3- An effective support with massive marches from poor settlements to main hospitals in the general strike of doctors against privatization of health system on December 24th.

4- During the month, together with groups of 3-5 activists, graffiti and poster campaigns around the precarious workers settlements and workplaces.

5- During and after this month, to increase the efforts of distribution of pamphlets in front of factories and workplaces.

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