Union leader describes Istanbul construction site as ‘slave camp’

“Turkey is a hell for workers but a heaven for investors.” General-Secretary of DISK/Dev Yapi-Is Nihat Demir
Sunday 21/10/2018
General-Secretary of DISK/Dev Yapi-Is Nihat Demir. 	(Courtesy of Nihat Demir)
Speaking up. General-Secretary of DISK/Dev Yapi-Is Nihat Demir. (Courtesy of Nihat Demir)

LONDON - Ahead of the scheduled October 29 opening of Istanbul’s new airport, hundreds of workers have been detained at the construction site. Work-related accidents and poor safety regulations led to dozens of employee deaths since 2015. Turkey’s Ministry of Labour and Social Security conceded in February that 27 workers had died at the site.

With more than 30,000 workers operating in squalid conditions and the rush to finish the airport in time for Turkey’s Republic Day, massive demonstrations broke out last month.

On October 4, Ozgur Karabulut, president of DISK/Dev Yapi-Is (the Progressive Union of Construction Workers) was detained. Karabulut was fired from his job at the airport this year. After being detained, he was arrested on charges of “resisting the fulfilment of duty,” “damaging public property” and other alleged violations.

DISK/Dev Yapi-Is, which represents more than 300,000 workers in Turkey and is one of the country’s largest trade unions, is campaigning for Karabulut’s release. The union’s general-secretary, Nihat Demir, a 27-year-old construction surveyor, told The Arab Weekly (TAW) about the pressures on those implementing the ruling Justice and Development Party’s ever-growing series of megaprojects. He spoke amid reports in the Turkish media of a possible delay in the airport project until the end of the year.

TAW: “Can you describe the working conditions at Istanbul’s new airport?”

Demir: “It is a slave camp. They are rushing to finish before Republic Day (October 29) but everybody knows it is impossible. Many of the workers are from south-eastern Turkey or are expats from Nepal, Afghanistan, Egypt and Uzbekistan. These expats and migrants are staying in camps that are terrible, dirty and unhealthy. Too many people are forced to share the same room, which are full of bedbugs. Now, in autumn, it’s been raining and they are flooded.

“There are hundreds of subcontractor companies, which are not paying the workers’ salaries on time. Sometimes salaries are delayed up to six months.

“Occupational health and safety standards are inadequate. There are almost no inspections. Due to the lack of these measures, at least 37 workers were killed. Hundreds of workers have been injured, some seriously. This work site needs to be sealed closed.”

TAW: “Ozgur Karabulut was arrested on October 4. Why was he detained and what is your response to this?”

Demir: “The prosecutor claims he broke laws such as the ‘right to work,’ the ‘law on demonstrations’ and that he ’damaged public property’ and ’resisted officers.’ These are official accusations but are totally nonsense. He joined meetings with the company and he delivered the demands of workers. He made statements and interviews to convey the workers’ messages.

“To solve the dispute, the company and the government must consult with the workers but they arrested the workers’ spokespeople. They don’t want our voice to be heard. We have started a solidarity campaign for prisoners. We must take care of their families first. Ozgur and his wife will have their second child in the coming weeks.

“We started an online petition (for the release of Karabulut and for occupational security at the airport construction site). In the first day of the campaign, 5,000 trade unionists worldwide sent letters to the Turkish minister for labour, asking for Ozgur’s freedom.”

TAW: “Why is the government dealing with workers in this way?”

Demir: “Turkey is on the way to becoming the China of Europe. Turkey is using cheap labour as an advantage and the government is promoting the construction sector — big bridges, water dams, major highways and airports — without considering if it is legal or necessary. All these workers are working on big projects for long hours with low salaries, with poor occupational health and safety structures.

“Meanwhile, the freedom of association and fundamental trade union rights are under attack. Workers cannot organise and demand their rights. Labour disputes are faced with violence such as at the airport.

“We are not slaves. We are workers asking for decent work.”

TAW: “What is the biggest problem workers in Turkey face today?”

Demir: “Uncertainty about their future is the main problem; most workers do not have access to social security. Half of the labour market is not registered and most of the services across a variety of sectors are outsourced to second companies, meaning we don’t have permanent jobs. Salaries are low and the official minimum wage is 1,600 Turkish lira ($275 a month), which is far below the poverty line. Turkey is a hell for workers but a heaven for investors.”