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2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Turkey

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 9 June 2010
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Turkey, 9 June 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c4fec52c.html [accessed 1 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 74,800,000
Capital: Ankara
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

There has been a worrying trend of judicial harassment of trade unions. Union leaders and members have been arrested, sometimes by the dozens, and tried on terrorism charges, and have often spent months in jail without access to due trial. There is a serious backlog in bringing the trade union rights-related legislation in line with EU standards and ILO Conventions, whereas a lot of progress has been achieved in other legal areas. The right to strike and collective bargaining remain problematic, and interference in internal union affairs is varied and rife.

Trade union rights in law

The laws on trade union rights are not yet in conformity with international standards. Freedom of association is recognised for nationals and foreign workers alike, although several categories of workers in the public sector are excluded. Trade unions must obtain permission from the authorities to organise meetings or rallies, and must allow the police to attend their events and record the proceedings. If a union seriously contravenes the laws governing its activities, it can be forced to suspend its activities or enter into liquidation by order of an industrial tribunal.

Furthermore, while the right to collective bargaining is recognised in the private sector, only one union per enterprise may conduct bargaining, and the thresholds for recognition are high. In the public sector, only "collective consultative talks" on financial issues are allowed.

The right to strike is also limited, as the procedures for calling a strike can last up to an inordinate three months. The type of lawful strike action is narrowly defined, and picketing is also very restricted. Severe penalties, including imprisonment, are possible for participation in non-authorised strikes. Finally, the right to strike is not formally recognised in the public sector.

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2009

No progress towards achieving full trade union rights in line with EU Standards and ILO Conventions: In its October Progress Report, the European Commission reported that "the reinstitution of 1 May as Labour and Solidarity Day after 28 years was an encouraging step". However, it also deplored that "the current legal framework is not in line with EU Standards and ILO Conventions, in particular as regards the right to organise, the right to strike and the right to bargain collectively, for both the private and public sectors". The ILO also called upon Turkey to adopt these reforms and suggested the organisation of a high-level bipartite mission to assist the government. Social dialogue, at the cross-sectoral, sectoral and corporate levels, remains generally weak. Overall, the percentage of workers benefiting from collective agreements is low. The channels for tripartite social dialogue, in particular the Economic and Social Council, need to be strengthened.

Judicial harassment of trade unions: 2009 saw a dramatic increase of trials aimed at curtailing trade unions, a trend which started earlier but seems to be steadily on the rise. There is a basic pattern, with unionists being treated roughly, or even mistreated, following their arrest, after which the authorities invoke some legal clause to keep the cases "confidential", so the defence lawyers have no access to their clients' files, sometimes for more than one month. The accusations are generally related to some form of "terrorist activity", and the trials are usually marked by a lack of compliance with both national and European legal requirements.

Severe limitations to the right to strike: On 21 April, in the Yapi-Yol Sen (an affiliate of national public sector union KESK) case, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled that the general ban, issued by the Turkish government, preventing public-sector employees from taking part in a one-day national strike in support of the right to a collective-bargaining agreement, was a violation of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights on freedom of assembly and association.

Bargaining obstructed: Unions report that the government manipulates membership figures or claims there are irregularities in the figures in order to deny them the right to collective bargaining. Obstruction by employers is not adequately punished, even when a labour court rules in favour of a union.

Pressure to leave the union: Many workers face discrimination because of their trade union membership. Discriminatory measures and pressure on workers to leave the union such as transfers to other workplaces, often in other cities, continued to be a problem.

Violence against peaceful demonstrators: On 5 June, the national March of the Teachers was prevented by the police, which used excessive violence in order to do so.

On 5 October, public sector union (KESK) President Sami Evren addressed a crowd at Istanbul's Taksim Square during a demonstration against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings that were going to be held in the city later on. Immediately after his speech, the police dispersed the crowd using tear gas and water cannons.

On 25 November, hundreds of thousands of Turkish civil servants went on strike for the first time in ten years, to defend their right to strike. The police used tear gas against young NGO members who were demonstrating in support of the strike in the streets of Ankara. Prime Minister Erdogan warned the strikers that they would have to "assume the consequences" of their "illegal movement".

On 15 December, some 10,000 workers from former tobacco and alcohol state monopoly TEKEL started demonstrating in front of the ruling party's (AKP) offices in Ankara. After being violently driven out by the police, they continued their actions in front of the offices of Türk-Is and staged a sit-in strike to demand respect for their basic workers' rights, as the privatisation of TEKEL had caused 12,000 workers to lose their job, and, contrary to the Turkish law on privatisation, they had not had the possibility of other positions under at least the same conditions. The TEKEL workers were continuing their actions at year's end. Prime Minister Erdogan has shown particular intransigence towards the workers, attacking them in the media.

Undermining collective bargaining in the Turkish civil aviation: On 13 January, the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) protested against the government attempt to undermine the collective bargaining status of its affiliate Hava-Is, the Turkish Civil Aviation Union, which is the only aviation union in Turkey representing pilots, cabine crew, maintenance workers and ground staff since 1962. Their collective bargaining status was suddenly threatened by a newly forged alliance between Celik-Is, a metal workers' union, and Turkish Airlines Maintenance Centre THY Technical (hold at 49% by the government). This would have been detrimental to the workers, as Celik-Is does not represent maintenance workers.

BTS and Egitim Sen Sivas branch presidents arrested for "aiding illegal organisations": On 25 February, Nejat Sezginer, Sivas Branch President of the KESK affiliated United Transport Workers' Union (BTS), and Onder Dogan, Sivas Branch President of the teachers' union Egitim Sen, were arrested for allegedly having provided "aid to illegal organisations". The case, heard on 17 September, was dealt with "under secrecy" as requested by the public prosecutor and authorised by the judge, meaning that the defence lawyer had no access to the files. On 17 September, Onder Dogan was initially kept in jail, while Nejat Sezginer was released on bail on condition that he return to court. Onder Dogan was subsequently released at a court hearing in Erzurum in November. At the end of the year, both of their court cases were still pending, however. In all, 14 trade unionists were indicted in this case.

Trade Union of Public Employees in Health and Social Services (SES) Executive Board member arrested: On 17 April, SES Executive Board member Seher Tümer was detained in her workplace, the Ankara Zekai Tahir Burak Women's Health Training and Research Hospital, and charged with being a member of an illegal armed organisation. She was tried a first time on 28 July, a second time on 27 August, a third time on 23 October, and a fourth time on 18 December. When this Survey went to press, she remained in prison and her trial continued. During her hearings, it is often stated that Seher Tümer is a trade unionist.

Trade union lay-offs: In May, the Public Services International (PSI)-affiliated municipality workers' union Genel-Is started its struggle on behalf of its 276 members, who were dismissed after Karsiyaka Municipality in Izmir started to contract out the municipal services. Services were up till then being provided by KENT-AS. The workers were dismissed because of a lack of resources and excess workforce, but according to PSI, the main reason for their dismissal was to outsource the services they provided. This is indeed what happened soon after the Genel-Is members were dismissed. After five months of seeking conciliation with the Municipal Administration, Genel-Is had still not received a response. It therefore decided to organise a protest march from Izmir to Ankara, which was then disturbed by police interference.

Arrest and detention of Tüm Bel-Sen representative: On 17 June, Mr Metin Findik, Cizre-Sirnak representative of Tüm Bel-Sen, a municipal services' union affiliated to Public Services International (PSI), was arbitrarily arrested after his house was searched by the police. He was transported to Mardin, where he was detained in an E-type closed prison. By the end of the year, he had spent six months in detention without being informed of any charges against him. Furthermore, his lawyers had been denied access to the investigation files, through a decision of the public prosecutor of Diyarbakir.

Interference in internal union affairs: On 28 July, Public Services International (PSI) protested against attempts to force workers in the state enterprise of ÇAYKUR, the General Directorate of Tea Enterprises, to disaffiliate from Türk-Is and IUF-affiliate Tekgida-Is and become members of Ozgida-Is, which has close relations with the ruling party AKP. Workers who refused to comply with the instructions to this effect were subjected to intimidation, including threats of dismissal, workplace transfer and tougher working conditions.

Anti-union campaign at IKEA and Carrefour supplier: Menderes Tekstil in South-Western Turkey, supplier of IKEA and Carrefour, produces bed linen for the home market and for export. Over the last years, four Menderes workers died due to work-related injuries. In March 2008, the national textile workers union TEKSIF (an ITGLWF affiliate) started organising workers at the factory. Since then, the Menderes management called the union leaders into their offices one by one, and gave them the choice between renouncing the union or being sacked. The management has repeatedly threatened workers suspected of being union members, forcing them to leave the union or to sign documents indicating their voluntary resignation. In some cases, workers have been assigned to new jobs for which they are not trained or qualified. Where workers have refused to renounce their union membership or to accept a transfer or dismissal, the management has occasionally gone as far as to harass their relatives if they too were employed at the factory.

Along with trade union centres and the Clean Clothes Campaign, TEKSIF demanded recognition of TEKSIF as their legitimate representative trade union, and for it to be granted collective bargaining status; for management to involve TEKSIF in the ongoing discussions on the factory's restructuring; and the reinstatement, with compensations and pay-back of salary arrears for workers who were involved in court proceedings following their dismissal due to their union membership.

Assassination attempt on DISK President Süleyman Çelebi: On 5 October, Süleyman Çelebi, President of DISK, was hit by four bullets in the leg. He had to be taken to the hospital to be operated. The aggressor was arrested and handed over to the police. During a press conference, Çelebi denied claims made by his assailant that he owed him money and considered that it was rather an assassination attempt against the president of a national union centre.

UNIA (Swiss interprofessional union) official arrested and denied medical care: On 30 September, Murad Akincilar, a Turkish trade unionist working in Switzerland for UNIA, a national union center, was arrested by officers in civilian clothes and detained on terrorism charges. He was arrested along with 16 other persons on terrorism charges when working on the organisation of a Social Forum in Turkey. Ten persons were released after having their statement taken by the police. The others, including Murad Akincilar, remained in detention however. Since 2000, Murad Akincilar was living in Switzerland after having fled Turkey. While in Turkey, he was arrested and subsequently faced harsh detention conditions. He partially lost his sight in one eye because he was not granted the necessary medical care.

Public sector union KESK on trial: On 19-20 November, the trial against 31 leaders and members of KESK, the national public sector workers' union, was held with a delegation of representatives from international and European trade unions and Global Union Federations in attendance. Twenty-two of the 31 had been detained for nearly six months. Before the submission of the indictment, on 31 July, the defence lawyers had not had access to their files.

The KESK members were officially tried on the charge of having established a terrorist organisation, though it is clear that it was really owing to their union activities. The accusations were all written up after police had tapped the phones of 36 KESK members and leaders, who had been arrested on 28 May.

The only evidence against the KESK members stemmed from their recorded telephone conversations and their e-mail exchanges. During the trial itself, the rights of the defence were constantly violated, with the president of the court himself conducting the interrogations, the defence lawyers being prevented from speaking to the defendants, and only one female guard being present although ten women were standing trial.

The court ruled that all the detainees should be freed, but must reappear in court in March 2010.

No health and safety or social security for shipyard workers because of lack of government backing for trade union rights: 2009 was another disastrous year for Turkey's shipyard workers. The DISK-affiliated Harbour, Shipyard, Shipbuilding and Repair Workers' Union Limter-Is reported 15 workers died during their work on a Turkish shipyard, most of them at the notorious Tuzla shipyard, 50 km away from Istanbul. The Limter-Is chairman Cem Dinç blamed the powerlessness of the unions on the government's indifference.

Thirteen trade union leaders arrested: On 7 December, almost the entire Executive Committee as well as some local branch office presidents of Nakliyat-Is, a trade union organising transport workers (predominantly those employed by subcontractors) affiliated to DISK, were arrested and detained. Nakliyat-Is is one of the larger and more visible affiliates of DISK. The union headquarters were also raided. Upon arresting them, the police searched their houses as well as union premises in the cities of Istanbul, Konya and Gebze. They were subsequently charged with "organising a crime syndicate in order to generate financial profit". The defense lawyers had no access to their clients' files.

Union victory at Mersin International Port (MIP): Tümtis, an International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) affiliate, went into a dispute with the port's landside sub-contractor Akan-sel after it had dismissed 120 workers "for economic reasons" in January. This occurred after Tümtis had successfully recruited most of them. The company also challenged the Labour Ministry's decision which confirmed that the union could represent these workers. On 8 May, the conflict escalated after the police was brought in while workers were protesting at the port's gate. Finally, a top-level meeting between the union and management was held, after which all workers who had been dismissed since January were re-hired by the new sub-contractor, which had in the meantime been contracted by MIP.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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