Mega airport project in Turkey’s Istanbul rocked by deaths of dozens of workers

Up to 400 workers may have reportedly died since construction began less than three years ago.
February 25, 2018
Construction workers walk inside a new tunnel in Istanbul. (AFP)
Safety concerns. Construction workers walk inside a new tunnel in Istanbul. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - One of Turkey’s most ambitious building projects, the construction of a mega airport in Istanbul, has been rocked by accusations that a rush to finish work has cost the lives of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of workers.

Cumhuriyet, a respected opposition newspaper, reported that up to 400 workers might have died since construction began less than three years ago. Quoting workers at the airport construction site, the daily said many deaths go unreported because families of the victims are paid the equivalent of about $100,000 in hush money. The government puts the death toll at 27 but an opposition lawmaker in Ankara is beginning a formal query in parliament that the government must answer to.

Ankara is touting the airport, designed to handle 150 million passengers a year — Dubai International Airport, the busiest airport in the world, had 88.2 million passengers pass through it last year — as a showcase for Turkey’s prowess as an economic powerhouse.

The airport is to “carry Turkey to a different level on the international stage,” then-Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in 2013. When completed, the airport will have six runways and could become a global hub on the scale of Hong Kong, London or Dubai. It will take over traffic from Istanbul’s existing two airports.

The project has been controversial from the start. Critics said the airport will destroy forests and drinking water resources for Istanbul, a city of 15 million people. Now the government and construction companies are facing accusations of ignoring the rights of the approximately 30,000 workers employed at the site and of accepting a high number of deaths to reach tight deadlines.

The issue burst onto Turkey’s agenda with the front-page story in Cumhuriyet on February 12 that declared the “third airport is like a cemetery.” The daily said many deaths occurred due to the largely uncontrolled traffic of thousands of trucks around the airport site, while police officers and inspectors were looking the other way. One trade union official, Yunus Ozgur, told the paper accidents killed three to four workers every week.

 “The airport has a catastrophic work environment,” Mustafa Sonmez, an economist and writer who is critical of Erdogan, said in a telephone interview. “There’s nothing like this anywhere else in the world.”

He called the airport an “illegal” project with the purpose of garnering votes for Erdogan ahead of next year’s local, parliamentary and presidential elections.

Some Erdogan critics suspect the president could call the elections this year to profit from a wave of nationalist sentiment created by the recent Turkish intervention into the Syrian district of Afrin. “It’s all about votes, just like Afrin,” Sonmez said about the new airport.

Two days after Cumhuriyet published its story, Evrensel, another newspaper critical of the government, said deadly accidents were continuing unabated. A worker died after falling from a height of 4 metres, Evrensel said. An opposition lawmaker in Ankara took the issue to parliament, initiating a formal query that the government must answer.

Confronted with the negative publicity, the government published its own numbers and put the total number of work-related deaths at 27. Inspections at the site continued, the Labour Ministry said in a statement. Critics are not convinced. “Even if it’s only 27, it’s still a disaster,” Sonmez said.

He added the public was being kept in the dark because most Turkish media were on the government’s side.

Erdogan has presided over several multibillion-dollar construction projects in recent years to modernise Turkey’s infrastructure and to create jobs. Among them are a new highway bridge across the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul and underwater rail and road links to connect Istanbul’s European and Asian sides. In a future venture, the president wants to dig a canal between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.

Work on the new airport has seen some delays since 2015. An original deadline for the completion of a first stage by 2017 was missed but the government apparently is confident that the first planes can take off and land later this year. Minister of Transport Ahmet Arslan said that 80% of construction had been completed. News reports said a first test flight was planned for February 26, Erdogan’s 64th birthday.

Turkey has a poor record of work safety. In 2014, the 28 EU countries registered a total of 3,700 work-related deaths but Turkey alone had 1,600 fatal accidents. The Workers’ Health and Work Safety Assembly, a Turkish NGO, put last year’s number of fatalities from accidents at work at 2,006. That figure was up from 1,970 deaths in 2016, the NGO said. In one of the worst industrial accidents in Turkey’s history, 301 workers died when a fire broke out in a coal mine in Soma in western Turkey in 2014.