Too many payroll workers, too few trade unions in Turkey

Too many payroll workers, too few trade unions in Turkey

Too many payroll workers, too few trade unions in Turkey

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Turkish capitalism has experienced a long period of growth in the period since 2002 when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. The wind of this growth was provided domestically and internationally. This growth, which occurred with the push of a foreign capital inflow totaling an annual average of $40 billion, was mostly oriented toward the domestic market. This rapid growth, which occurred in big cities, primarily in Istanbul, accelerated the migrations both between rural and urban and also between small and big cities.

Domestic market-oriented growth was mostly concentrated on construction, which brought together an increase in employment, though it was distorted and unstable.

A portion of the workforce that moved from agriculture to the non-agricultural sector found employment opportunities in industry, as well as in the services sector. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute’s (TÜİK) household workforce survey, employment went up from 19.6 million to 26.1 million between 2004 and 2014, an increase of 6.5 million. It has to be said that almost all of this hike of 6.5 million was in payroll employment. In the same period, the number of employed went up from 11 million to 17 million, an increase of around 61 percent.

This period was one when the population coming from agriculture was employed in non-agricultural payroll work and when the population who migrated to the cities mostly joined the workforce market.
However, this quantitative boost in payroll employment was never transformed into an organized trade union structure; its qualitative transformation almost never occurred. The AKP preferred to limitlessly take advantage of this without ever touching the obstacles over the dysfunctional trade unions, the obstacles to collective bargaining and strike rights which were implanted with the 1982 Constitution, a product of the Sept. 12, 1980 coup.

HDN Without trade unions

Two weeks ago, while 15,000 workers were preparing to strike in the metal work sector led by the Birleşik Metal-İş union, a member of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DİSK), it was once more remembered that the country of payroll employment, Turkey, was one that is poor on the rights of trade unions and strikes. In its first day, the strike was postponed for 60 days on the grounds of “national security” by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the cabinet. We once more understood how eviscerated the rights had become. Postponing the strike meant not being able to use this right again, because according to the law, any postponed strike means a strike which has to be solved through mediators. Now, the entire power rests with the mediating council in this case.

In Turkey where the payroll class exceeds 17 million, the rights of workers and their so-called gains lack content; a fact that has once more been understood. The economic-democratic rights of the working class are defined, on paper, in the 53rd, 54th and 55th articles of the 1982 Constitution. However, there are several thresholds standing before the formation of a trade union; after those are overcome, there are several thresholds before the authorization for collective bargaining. Once past these, in the event of any disagreement, a series of obstacles stand before the strike weapon. As a result, it looks as if there are union, collective bargaining and strike rights in the Constitution, but in practice, it is not possible to apply them.


TÜİK announced the number of payroll workers as 17.2 million for 2014. The Labor Ministry, on the other hand, accepts only the registered ones at 13.2 million. Only 10 percent of them, which means only about 1.3 million are members of a trade union, of whom 700,000 are under collective contracts. In other words, out of the total number of payroll workers, only 4 percent of them can actually use one of their constitutional rights. From 1990 onward, the number of workers able to use this right has rapidly decreased. While 1.5 million workers benefitted from collective contracts between 1990 and 1991, only 1 million had such contracts by the end of the 1990s; today, this figure is just 700,000.

After the 2001 crisis, in those years of AKP governments, economic growth was mostly based on cheap labor used as a competitive force. In parallel with this, public institutions in which collective contracts were relatively more common eroded rapidly with privatizations. When it was 2013, it can be seen that the number of workers benefiting from collective contracts went down to 700,000. This is a decrease of 55 percent compared to the 1.5 million workers in 1990-1991.  

HDN What about strikes?

Only 700,000 out of the 13.2 million registered and insured workers have the potential to use their collective contract rights; in other words, not even 6 percent. But graver than this is the situation of the most important defense weapon of the working person, the strike. The ability to strike has been eroded to such an extent that it exists in name only.

Despite the anti-union framework of the Sept. 12 environment and its aftermath, 160,000 workers staged a strike in the late 1980s amid a rising workers’ movement in mining.

In 1995, the number of strikes rose again, only to drop substantially in following years. In 2000, only about 19,000 workers used their right to strike and in 2005, the number of those workers able to strike went down to around 3,500. Between 2010 and 2012, they were not even 1,000 a year. In 2013, only 16,000 people were able to strike. The ministry has not disclosed 2014 data yet.

Non-organized voter

The growth in the 2003-2013 era, which was possible with the inflow of foreign resources that were oriented toward the domestic market and focused on construction caused quantitative boosts in employment, as expected. Those who abandoned agriculture and came to the city to join the workforce found jobs as wage earners. As a result, they have approved AKP rule as “voters.” However, when it comes to organizing for better pay and better working conditions, there was no qualitative transformation; the AKP governments were not facilitators. It was observed that in this field, the AKP governments did not make any changes in the working environment taken from the anti-union 1982 Constitution and, when necessary, they made ample use of them.

The largest union establishment that is mostly organized in the public sector, Türk-İş, lost a significant number of members due to the rapid privatization of public workplaces after 2000. Unemployment, which is over 10 percent officially but is as much as 17 percent unofficially, is the biggest nightmare for workers. While the fear of losing one’s job while trying to organize kept workers distanced from unions, new work models due to changing technology, new business models such as subcontracting and sub-employers are processes that work against trade unions. Trade unions are powerless and ineffective in terms of finances. This is also an obstacle in their efforts to increase the number of their members.

HDN Anti-union AKP

The AKP administration has demonstrated in numerous occasions that it is unhappy that wage earners freely use their rights to form a union and bargain collectively. The AKP is a political power that regards wage earners as “voters” and prefers to be on good terms with them as voters and to achieve this, where necessary, has increased salaries at the rate of inflation. It is also as “charitable” as to distribute social aid totaling as much as 5 percent of the budget for those who are poor, but when it comes to independent organized union movements, things change. It either frightens or intimidates most of the existing unions to make them “harmonize” with the government or become “pro-government,” or it makes them ineffective and, as seen in the last metal strike example, it does not hesitate to ban them with Sept. 12-era laws.