Trade unionization in Turkey remains very low: Professor Kılıç

Trade unionization in Turkey remains very low: Professor Kılıç

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Trade unionization in Turkey remains very low: Professor Kılıç

While the unionization rate remains very low in Turkey, awareness of labor rights has increased over the past 15 years, according to Professor Cem Kılıç, an expert in industrial relations. 

“Turkish unions do not have a history of experience in tough struggles. As employment in the public sector started to diminish through privatizations, rates of unionization started to drop significantly … [Unions] have recently become more active in terms of getting organized but this does not really compensate,” Kılıç told the Hürriyet Daily News ahead of May 1, international workers’ day.

Tell us how Turkey fares on workers’ rights.

The labor law and the social security law are sufficient in terms of present day conditions. But implementation remains a problem. We also have a serious problem on the issue of informal and unregistered employment, with unregistered workers unable to benefit from their rights. There are overall around 22 or 23 million working people but the ratio of unionization is low. It is sometimes said to be around 10 percent, but other estimates are even lower. Trends on unionization have been going backwards and we can certainly say the situation is worse than before the 1980s.

Were these laws passed as a result of Turkey’s accession talks with the European Union?

Several issues have passed into law in Turkey thanks to the social policy and employment chapter of the EU accession talks. But there are also achievements dating back to before then. Turkey is a member of the International Labor Organization [ILO] and has from the beginning been a party to most of the ILO’s conventions. But the ILO has blacklisted Turkey for many years, especially over collective bargaining and becoming organized under associations.

But it would be wrong to blame it all on the state. The practice of getting organized in unions has taken place in the public sector, which has made life easier for unions. Turkish unions do not have a history of experience in tough struggles. As employment in the public sector started to diminish through privatizations, rates of unionization started to drop significantly. And because our trade unions became used to a much easier practice in the public sector, they proved to be very weak when confronted with the private sector. This dealt a blow to them. They have recently become more active in terms of getting organized but this does not really compensate. 

In contrast to many Western countries, Turkey did not have an industrial revolution until very late. We did not have a working class or organized masses. The transition to industrialization was very rapid and employers were unfamiliar with the concept of unions. Especially in the private sector, not everyone agrees that the right to be organized in a trade union is among the key constitutional rights. They are worried about trade unions organizing in their workplace. But they should not be; the most efficient workplaces are ones that have collective bargaining with unions.

Turkey has the image of a country with a cheap labor force, where workers cannot benefit from their rights and suffer from unjust treatment.

I disagree. Despite the shortcomings that I have cited, serious progress has been registered in industrial relations. There is still a trade union movement in Turkey. Serious sanctions are implemented, especially after the endorsement of certain laws in the 2000s. Whenever a workplace is caught with unregistered workers, that workplace is closed down. That is why the rate of unregistered work has dropped from 50 percent to 35 percent. There is a serious shortage of qualified workers whose salaries are very high.

But there is also the question of rights, the terms of hiring and firing. Many workers are still fired without receiving any compensation and there are still many deadly work accidents.

This is all valid for the unregistered economy. But it is not the case in the registered economy. The labor force has gained an important awareness of its rights over the course of the last 15 years. We have played a role in that too. There are sections on working life in newspapers’ economy pages as well as TV programs on working life. Fifteen years ago I often came across workers who did not know what severance pay was, while now people do their own math. 

What about work accidents? Are they on the rise or have they just become more visible?

With diversification of industrial and service sectors, the number of workers has increased. That has brought with it a rise in accidents. Although there have been accidents in the past too, accidents have become more visible now. There is a rise in awareness levels. But I have to underline that up until 2012 the biggest shortcoming was the lack of a proper occupational health and safety law. The law passed in 2012 brought the obligation to consult professionals who are experts on occupational health and security.

But still there has not been a drop in accidents. This comes back to the issue of Turkey’s fast transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. We have underestimated our relationship with machines. This is not just with the employer but also with the employee too. The laws are all encompassing; they foresee advance measures, but that does not help with the gap in education, training and conscience.

Then comes the issue of monitoring.

There are 1.8 million workplaces in Turkey. Ninety-eight percent are small and medium-size workplaces, family enterprises. They are obviously not convinced about following all the rules. The ministry also has a limited capacity in monitoring.

Turkey’s Labor and Social Security Ministry decided Memur-Sen (Confederation of Public Servants Trade Unions) would represent the labor force at the upcoming International Labour Organization (ILO) Conference. What’s your view on that?

The confederation of Turkish Trade Unions [Türk-İş] has been representing Turkey at the ILO since its establishment. There has been huge discontent that Memur-Sen, the trade union with the highest number of members, will go to the meeting. No consensus had been sought in the decision-making process. Türk-İş represents all sectors in Turkey and that should have been taken into consideration.

Currently, important steps have been taken on behalf of subcontracted workers. Can you tell us how this will affect unions?

Both the public and private sector have gone beyond the limits of the labor law in terms of employing subcontracted workers. As such, they thought they could get rid of the issue of severance pay. In the road construction sector, the main work is to lay asphalt. In time, all the work was done by subcontracted workers. But Yol-İş [the trade union for the road construction sector] filed legal cases against the public sector in 2012. Two years ago, they joined the cadre as workers. There were around a million workers in the same situation in the public sector and the government granted their rights two months ago.

This will increase the rate of unionization. Yol-İş was able to win the legal cases of 10,000 subcontracted workers and they all became its members.

Is it true that there is a divided front in terms of trade unions, as some of them are more pro-government? It seems some have been worried that subcontracted workers would end up in pro-government unions.

There is indeed such a differentiation between trade unions and there were serious fears, especially in Türk-İş, about the subcontracted workers. But they have conveyed their concerns to the president and to the minister and the threat is no longer there. Türk-İş has shown serious resistance and the government has taken a position in favor of Türk-İş.

Every year there is controversy over holding a rally in Taksim Square on May 1. What is your take on this?

The union’s main mission is to protect and develop workers’ rights. They cannot get involved in politics. But due to ideological polarization, trade unions have been held responsible for certain incidents in the past. Turkey’s workers movement does not deserve to be pushed into this framework.

I personally do not have a stance to insist on holding a rally in Taksim, which has symbolic importance. But Türk-İş has been holding rallies in different parts and they have been quite successful. In fact, they are going to Hatay this year.

Trade unionization in Turkey remains very low: Professor KılıçWHO IS CEM KILIÇ?

Born in 1968, Cem Kılıç graduated from the industrial relations department of Gazi University’s Faculty of Economic and Administrative sciences.

He earned his postgraduate degrees from the same university, and after spending a year as a visiting scholar at Carleton University in Canada, Kılıç continued his academic career at Gazi University and became a professor in 2007.

His research areas focus on social security, unemployment, EU social policies, and human resources. In 2010 he started writing in Dünya, Turkey’s main financial daily. Following two years at daily Akşam, he has been writing regularly about work life for daily Milliyet. He has also had a TV program since 2010 on broadcaster NTV.

Kılıç currently teaches at the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB) University.

worker rights, laborer, labor rights,