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Turkish experts divided over Tekel privatization dispute

ANKARA - Hürriyet Daily News | 2/1/2010 12:00:00 AM | İZGİ GÜNGÖR

A labor unionist says the workers were victimized during the privatization process in 2008. An economist, however, says he does not want his taxes to feed public employees who do not work

As workers from the country’s former state-owned alcohol and tobacco monopoly, or Tekel, focused on the government’s new offer that might stop their mass action in the capital Ankara, a unionist and economy experts weigh in on the privatization dispute.

A labor unionist and an economist said the government-led privatization process has created many problems for Turkey, while another economist supported the government's tough stance on the issue.

“The real problem is whether you are on the side of privatization or not. Before privatization, Tekel used to be an institution that produced economic and social benefits,” Tülay Özerman, secretary-general of the Tobacco, Drink, Food and Allied Workers' Union, or Tekgıda-İş, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in an interview. "The Justice and Development Party [or AKP] government has embraced neo-liberal economic policies. It sold state factories to the highest bidder. It should have put an article in the Tekel bidding that will provide an employment guarantee for workers, for instance,” Özerman said.

Mustafa Kumlu, chairman of the Confederation of Turkish Labor Unions, or Türk-İş, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met Monday to discuss Tekel workers’ demands. Erdoğan on Friday had asked his ministers to work on ways to resolve the issue. The parties, however, had not announced a compromise as the Daily News went to press.

The Tekel workers went unnoticed until members were exposed to police use of pepper spray and pressurized water in Ankara’s Abdi İpekçi Park in December. Media coverage has focused on their proposed transfer to other public institutions under the Article 4/C of Law No. 657, which regulates working conditions of public employees.

When the government privatized Tekel in 2008 and sold six tobacco factories to British American Tobacco, or BAT, the company said it would employ only a fraction of the workers. Afterwards, BAT preferred not to produce in factories and five of the enterprises were shut down, displacing some 12,000 workers. Some quit working, while around 250 went to work in BAT-owned factories and the rest were transferred to other state-owned active Tekel units that were not privatized.

Ertuğ Yaşar, an economist and columnist for business daily Referans, said public workers have been receiving unnecessarily high salaries compared to private sector workers.

“There is information pollution regarding the salary of workers. It will be wrong to trust the figures given by labor unions as they talk about gross salary. I don’t want my taxes to be spent on Tekel workers. I think they are getting salaries without working,” Yaşar said. “All this process has been moving forward legally. Everything is legal. The factories were closed, so they would have been unemployed under normal circumstances. But the government offered them an option. I find the style of the prime minister as correct,” Yaşar said.

[HH] ‘Government ignored workers’

In November, the government announced it decided to close these units as of Jan. 30, also coming up with a two-stage plan for workers. According to this plan, workers would be dismissed by getting severance pay at the first stage and then would be reinstated in temporary positions at other public institutions under Article 4/C of Law No. 657.

Erdal Sağlam, economist and the Ankara representative of daily Referans, also said job security and worker rights should have been protected in the bid. “Or, the workers should have been transferred to other public institutions by keeping their social rights, as was the case in the privatization of public banks,” he said. “Under Article 4/C, workers are obliged to work in temporary status. The employer has the right to fire them if they receive even a two-day medical report. These workers just want to safeguard their previously acquired rights.”

Working under Article 4/C causes a significant reduction in wages, by almost half, and the loss of some workplace rights. Under the article, employees are allowed to work a maximum of 10 months. The government later expanded this period to 11 months and made a partial improvement in salaries. The workers, however, rejected Article 4/C as a whole.

“The privatization process should have guaranteed that all factories will remain active and tobacco will be purchased from Turkish producers. It is the government itself that signed the bid and made those units nonfunctional. It is the government itself that claims the workers are troublemakers,” Özerman said.

“Most of the Tekel factories were based in the less developed provinces and thus contributed to the regional economies. They provided employment and contributed to tobacco producers by purchasing their commodities,” she added.

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