The tragedy of Turkish workers with occupational diseases

The tragedy of Turkish workers with occupational diseases

Zafer Açıkgöz was a 28-year-old subcontracted health worker. Last year, while he was emptying the garbage at Istanbul Medical School, he was pricked by a needle. Despite this, he was forced to clean the sewage without gloves. He was infected and diagnosed with Hepatitis B. 

He wrote this letter: “I know you will cry for two days for me and you will forget on the third day. You will continue with your life as if nothing had happened. It is like the 1,500 workers who die every year in Turkey. It is like the 301 miners who died in the Soma mine.” 

“While I was happy that I found a job and made a living, I risked my life because of the lack of security measures, lack of the necessary training and lack of infrastructure. If you want to have a happy life with your loved ones, to marry and have children, demand the improvement of existing conditions, demand the completion of training.”

“My biggest wish is that all of those responsible, starting with the Ministry of Labor are punished by laws. They should be punished so that they do not repeat their mistakes. Bye bye…”

A couple of days after he wrote these words, he died of liver failure.  

The Workplace Murders Almanac 2014, prepared by the Support Group for Those Seeking Justice (Adalet Arayana Destek Grubu) starts with his letter. 

This year, the almanac has lent an ear to those workers who have caught occupational illnesses and were left alone. What happened to one of them is actually a manifestation of the injustice workers in this country experience.

Hatice Karakuş is a 72-year-old lupus patient. She worked for seven years at a workshop producing office equipment while being exposed to chemicals. There was no air-conditioning in the building and windows were closed so that the thinner did not vaporize. Most of her co-workers died; others were maimed like her. When her hands and lips started getting blue, she had to visit the hospital three or four times a week. A case was opened; she retired due to disability. It was calculated that she would live maximum 19 years, and when these 19 years passed, her salary was ended. Because they had already paid one additional year, they wanted the money back, asking for 20,000 Turkish Liras, interest included. 

When her salary was stopped, she went from hospital to hospital. Because her doctor at Çapa did not write that her illness continued and she was still incapacitated, any other report was not accepted. When she asked the doctor why he wrote her state as so, he answered, “It is enough you are making a living out of the state; now, you will not be able to do that.” 

She went to the chief surgeon. The head physician asked if a report could be issued that said she was unable to work. The occupational doctor replied, “In these cases, they used to accept our incapacitated reports; now, they do not accept our reports. During the past 10 years, if we issue an incapacitated report, they relocate us.” 

Karakuş is now waiting for a report from the Forensic Medicine Institute. They will decide whether she has an occupational illness or not. If they approve, her retirement salary will be back. The firm, if you ask, has closed long time ago. 

The case went on for 20 years. At the beginning, her lawyer was a lawyer for the employer side - she found out later- and he actually tricked Karakuş. After she fired her lawyer, the other side did not appear at the hearings. Every time, it was postponed to a later date. 

There was another young man named Ramazan in the same firm who became sick in the lungs. He believed, “I became sick; I didn’t want others to get sick.” He joined a trade union but whenever the workers met, police raided their meetings. Ramazan and others were fired. They then made those who were illiterate sign papers forcing them to resign from the union and they were re-hired.

Karakuş is now occupied with the case she has opened for incapacity payment. It will take two years for the report from the Forensic Institute to arrive. 

When she looks back at her life, this is what she sees: “I spent most of the days of my life in the hospital. I could not raise my younger children myself; their elder sisters looked after them all the time. When I was putting my daughter to sleep, she always feared that I would disappear. I was really going to the hospital. Now, I want to hug my grandchildren and never let them go. This is difficult, very difficult. Why do they not give me what I deserve?”