Come sunset, the iftar (fast-breaking dinner) time, workers mop their brow as they rush to join friends near the construction site of İstanbul’s new Metrobus line. They are amongst the more than 1 million outsource workers in Turkey who have to bring home bread under relatively poor working and living conditions.
Metrobus workers bade farewell to one of their colleagues following a work accident just last week. Yakup Kavak died after a section of a bridge that linked a Metrobus lane to an old terminal station collapsed in İstanbul’s Avcılar district, while two others were injured. Very little was done other than local authorities promising support for the victim’s family. “We are here to ease their pain as much as we can,” İstanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş told reporters, refraining from commenting on who might be responsible for his death. This latest death and other recent incidents bring to the mind the term “modern day slaves” in Turkey, a growing phenomenon. Such a term may not have a long history in Turkish labor circles, but it is surely swelling to become a permanent problem. With their primary concern being to cut down on salary and social security payments, more private and public institutions in Turkey are opting to receive key services from outsourcing firms. The latest data show that in Turkey around 1 million workers work for outsourcing companies, which provide relatively poor working and living conditions. This results in low quality work, which is what can be expected from workers hired cheaply without job security and laboring under poor conditions.
An emerging market that competes with cheap labor in many Asian markets, Turkey has seen outsourcing work increase in many fields over the past decade. The situation in developed markets, such as the EU, of which Turkey aspires to become a member, is that outsourcing companies have unions, and employees’ rights are protected.
Some amendments that the government is currently working on are feared to make outsourcing work even more widespread. Outsourcing work was introduced to Turkish markets by the construction sector, and it was later used by the education and health industries.
The state, local authorities and private firms mostly buy such services as cleaning, security, construction, transportation and health from outsourcing firms. The state holds what is called “service tenders” to hire workers from subcontractor firms. These tenders are aimed at hiring workers for temporary jobs, and the state resorts to this method in a bid to avoid paying relatively higher salaries. Workers hired for the state by subcontractors receive less than permanent civil servants. They receive minimum wage, and they do not have social security benefits equal to those of salaried employees of the state. The fear of losing their job is another burden for outsource workers. The Labor Ministry previously said it had mulled over regulations to offer better working conditions for public outsource workers; however, no progress has been made so far.
Workers unaware of rights, state silent
One of the critical problems is that most outsourcing firms have a bad track record with regard to ignoring measures to prevent workplace accidents and occupational diseases. Outsource workers criticize the government for doing very little although the authorities are well aware of problems the workers face. Most outsource workers are unaware of their rights, and companies are not hesitant to make use of this, Güneş Cengiz, chairwoman of TAŞ-İŞ-DER (Turkish Outsource Workers’ Union), told Sunday’s Zaman. The union was established in 2010 in reaction to problems outsource workers experienced at İstanbul University’s Çapa Hospital. “Following our efforts we have managed to regain our rights for this particular workplace [Çapa]. This should set an example for other outsource workers. Labor law regulates the rights of outsource workers; they have annual leave, for instance. This is not enough, but outsource workers need to seek their rights no matter what,” she explained. Cengiz said there are an estimated 150,000 workers hired by the state in the health sector. “I imagine the total number is between 500,000 and 1 million; the government still has no idea of how many outsource workers there are in Turkey,” she added.
One critical problem Cengiz complained of is that outsource workers cannot register with labor unions since they are still not recognized as “real workers.” “Labor unions are reluctant to lend a hand to outsource workers to protect their rights; they are too busy to do this, and the authorities remain silent. We need this system to be re-regulated,” she pointed out. Not every single outsource worker remains silent about what happens. Around 1,000 workers at Çapa commenced a protest last week, demanding to become permanent employees. They said they would slow down work until their demands are met. One worker for the Turkish Electricity Production Company (TEİAŞ) in Ankara became permanently disabled after he fell off a lamppost In June. He appealed to the court, filing a claim for compensation. The court ruled that both the real employer, TEİAŞ, and the subcontractor firm must pay compensation to the worker. Cengiz said they are ready to offer guidance for outsource workers who experience similar problems and stressed the main responsibility is on the shoulders of the state to solve these problems.