Down inside a leaky shaft of muck and grime, Hasan Solakoğlu does a job few even at this busy Beyoğlu construction site have endured, spending eight hours each day shoveling earth into buckets reaching down from the daylight above.
“It wouldn’t be a so bad,” the sallow-faced 35-year-old says, taking a long drag from his cigarette, “that is, if we were getting paid what we were promised for it!” That is a complaint grumbled by millions of workers at construction sites across Turkey, where labor laws have made the country’s dirty jobs rotten for another reason: the temporary contracts overwhelmingly used by employers deny workers promised pay and social security payments. The practice can also lead, as suggested by the death of eight temporary workers in a Black Sea mine last week, to tragic and unnecessary loss of life.
Known in Turkey as the “taşeron” system, a rough equivalent to temp agencies in western countries, subcontracting has become the country’s most popular method of employment in the construction, security, and custodial industries. The government estimates that Turkish temp agencies hired 1.6 million people in 2011, up from just less than 400,000 in 2002. Even at the six highly publicized (and supposedly well regulated) Istanbul Municipality construction projects visited by this correspondent -- including the Taksim pedestrianization project, Marmaray rail system, and Golden Horn Metro bridge --the taşeron system was ubiquitous, with workers stating that promises from municipal officials for fair treatment and timely hadn't changed their employers labor practices.
The system is popular because “firms can hire workers for a very short time to avoid paying for benefits and pay raises or dealing with other long-term problems like unions,” says Cemal Bilgin, head of temporary worker advocacy group TAŞ-İŞ-DER (Turkish Outsource Workers’ Union). The rapid hire-fire process should cost companies a fortune in severance pay, says Bilgin, “but that’s the other issue with these agencies, they can operate in expressly illegal ways because there are thousands of such firms and they easily avoid regulation.” Solakoğlu knows first hand. Working in construction for 20 years, the veteran says temp agencies commonly pay below minimum wage; withhold paychecks for weeks or months; refuse to pay social security installments; and promise, but later withhold, severance pay. “We don’t have a say. They promise something in writing, but later tear your contract up. It’s piracy.”
Ironically, the taşeron system grew out of government efforts to provide more workers with health insurance and pay above minimum wage. Taşeron has become an easy way out, allowing companies to pay less while disavowing any knowledge of employee mistreatment.
For Emrah Karacaoğlu, a full-time welder working on the Golden Horn’s new metro bridge, better regulations have provided a higher standard of life, with a full-time labor contract guaranteeing him a salary of TL 1,000 ($565) per month and TL 200 ($113) worth of social security payments. For taşeron worker Mehmet Özant -- who is working on the same bridge as an electrician -- his temporary contract provides him TL 600 ($340) a month -- far below the TL 775 ($440) minimum wage and without any social security. “And they can fire you at any time. They also promised higher wages and now pay less. It is two-faced,” he said. The ease with which the system bypasses more generous labor laws has made taşeron ubiquitous at construction sites, where Sunday’s Zaman found that most workers either identified as temp workers or said that the majority of workers on-site were hired as such. While the foremen or managers at construction sites visited by Sunday’s Zaman typically said “there were no problems on their site,” talks with workers exiting those sites showed that the majority say some form of payment, either required by law or promised in their contract, has been withheld from them.
Some are so skeptical about their working conditions that they refused to discuss their employment situation with this correspondent. “This problem has not changed in 25 years, and you certainly aren’t going to change things,” said one worker at a tea house near the metro bridge project. Other taşeron workers said things have gradually improved. “We’re paid on time by our agency, and we get minimum wage. And we’ve been paid social security for the last year,” said an electrician working at the massive Marmaray project in İstanbul’s Fatih district.
Above all, workers say the biggest drawbacks of temp jobs are the refusal of employers to pay social security installments and to provide severance pay when they suddenly fire workers. Both practices are illegal according to Turkish labor law. “In fact, dozens of these companies are fined massively every year,” says Turkish Outsource Workers’ Union chief Bilgin. “There are thousands of them that have popped up in the last decade, however, so when one closes, another opens. It’s a revolving door.”
Temp workers also face dangerous conditions on many of the jobs they work. Last week, eight miners died in the Black Sea city of Zonguldak. They were unskilled temp laborers hired by a company even though they had no previous experience in mining. An investigation last week found that the parent company did not, either -- it had never owned or managed a mine before. In March of last year, another 11 workers died in a dormitory fire at a mall construction site, prompting media outrage over the condition of temp workers. In the aftermath of the fire, Labor and Social Security Minister Faruk Çelik pledged to “do whatever is necessary” to overhaul the country’s lax labor standards, though the government has so far found no wrongdoing in the Marmarapak case, and the media has since barely followed the incident. “The problem is, if these cases involved the death of just one or two temp workers, they wouldn’t even make the news. This problem is bigger than these isolated cases,” says Bilgin. His break nearing an end, Solakoğlu agreed, remarking: “Accidents, contracts -- whatever problem we face, the root problem is we’re invisible. That’s how companies want us to be.”