Mayday in May Day
As an avid fan of Beşiktaş sports club, I am used to regularly getting teargassed by the police. Therefore, I did not make a big deal of it when my friend told me he and his wife had been introduced to pepper spray on May Day. After all, as our interior minister noted some time ago, it is organic and therefore perfectly healthy.
Besides, Turkish workers have much more important problems. First of all, workers are getting a smaller part of the pie: The share of total wages in gross domestic product (GDP) fell from 68.9 percent in 1991 to 39 percent in 2006. The Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK) stopped publishing GDP by income approach that year, and so there are no recent figures.
There are sharp swings in the data, hinting at methodological problems, but the wage share of GDP was 54.1 percent on average in the 1990s. The 2001 crisis did not hit workers too hard, either, at least not more than corporates. Wage share managed to hover around 50 percent before and after the crisis, but it plunged once the economy recovered.
While there is no reliable data on corporate profits, this pattern suggests that companies have been the main beneficiaries of the macroeconomic stability of the last decade. Who cares if poverty and inequality are falling, thanks to a bigger pie? But maybe Karl Marx was right in believing, at least according to economist Brad DeLong, that “even though the ruling class could appease the working class by using the state to redistribute and share the fruits of economic growth, it would never do so.”
You can see Turkish workers’ woes at the micro-level as well: The country has one of the most stringent labor regulations in the world. Rules such as a very generous severance pay end up protecting jobs rather than workers. Many firms choose not to register their workers to avoid severance and other labor costs, and the ones that do often show low official salaries, paying the difference in cash.
Some companies “ask” their workers to resign before they complete one year so that they are not entitled to severance pay, resorting to mobbing when employees don’t comply. They are then rehired in a month or two without any seniority. If you manage to sneak into the Social Security Institution’s classified data, you’ll be surprised to see that the number of people who quit work in any year is almost as large as the total non-farm, non-public sector employment.
Last but not least, worker safety measures are almost non-existent. Turkey had 7.22 deaths per million in coal production, compared to China’s 1.27, in 2008. There are also huge skill mismatches in many sectors. Any sector that grows quickly hits a labor constraint and has to hire unqualified workers, causing accidents to surge. No one remembers the Tuzla shipyard deaths of 2007-2008. The global crisis took care of that by hitting shipbuilding hard.
Turkish workers get pepper-sprayed by the police only once a year, but they have to deal with the issues I mentioned in this column every day.