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2009 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Turkey

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 11 June 2009
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2009 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Turkey, 11 June 2009, available at: [accessed 18 February 2018]
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: 71,893,000
Capital: Ankara
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

Full trade union rights have yet to be established in Turkey. There were improvements to the legal framework on freedom of association, but the rights to organise, to strike and to bargain collectively still need to be brought in line with EU standards and ILO conventions. Unions are still being thwarted in their organising efforts, and/or by massive lay-offs of their members and dubious court cases and arrests of their leaders. Strikers and peaceful demonstrators faced excessive police violence.

Trade union rights in law

Very little real progress has been made yet in bringing the country's legislation on workers' and trade union rights into line with international standards. Most changes are in draft form only, in contrast to other areas of law that have been changed with a view to Turkey's possible accession to the European Union.

Restrictions on freedom of association: The law recognises freedom of association for nationals and foreign workers alike and the right to form a trade union, but there are limitations.

Sections 3(a) and 15 of Act No. 4688, the Public Employees' Trade Unions Act (PETU), deny several categories of public servants the right to organise. Section 3(a) only admits those who are permanently employed and have finished their trial periods. Section 15 lists a number of employees (such as lawyers, civilian civil servants at the Ministry of National Defence and the Turkish Armed Forces, employees at penal institutions, special security personnel, public employees "in positions of trust", presidents of universities and directors of higher schools etc.) who are prohibited from joining trade unions. This affects more than 450,000 public employees.

In April 2007 Act No. 5620 was adopted amending section 3(a) of the Public Employees Trade Unions Act with the effect that personnel working under fixed-term contract are now entitled to join public employees unions. This broadens the range of public employees able to join a union but in no way brings Turkish law into conformity with Convention 87 in terms of the right of workers without distinction whatsoever to form and join the organisations of their choosing.

In May 2007 Act No. 5672 was adopted amending section 14(4) of the Trade Union Act by lifting the requirement of 10 years employment in order to enjoy eligibility for trade union office.

Bill No. 2821 (the Trade Unions Act) still contains various detailed restrictions on the right to strike. Bill no. 2822 (the Collective Agreements, Strike and Lockout Act) abolishes the obligation for workers who want to join a union to obtain a notary certificate, but not for those who want to resign from it. They have to pay for this service. Both bills will replace the existing legislation after having been approved by the Turkish parliament. Until this happens, candidates for union office still need to have ten years seniority and must be Turkish citizens. No concrete progress was made in 2008 concerning the adoption of these new laws although the government had reported to the ILO (in January 2008) that the adoption of new legislation was scheduled for the first quarter of 2008. Unless dramatic changes are made to the existing drafts, even when the bills come into force Turkey's relevant legislation will still be in breach of ILO conventions 87 and 98.

Activities restricted: Unions must obtain official permission to organise meetings or rallies, and must allow the police to attend their events and record the proceedings. Associations still cannot use languages other than Turkish in their official activities. The PETU also contains detailed provisions regarding the activities and functioning of trade unions, in breach of the principles of the right to organise.

If a union seriously contravenes the laws governing its activities, it can be forced to suspend its activities or enter into liquidation on the order of a labour tribunal.

Restrictions on collective bargaining: To be recognised as a bargaining agent, a union must represent at least 50% plus one of the workers within a factory, and 10% of the workers within the relevant sector nationwide. Only one union per enterprise, i.e. the largest one, is authorised to conduct collective bargaining. The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association's (CFA) recommendations that Act No. 2822 be amended to bring it in line with basic principles covering collective bargaining and the right to strike have been followed in the new Bill, but this has yet to be enacted.

As far as the public sector is concerned, the PETU does not mention the concept of collective bargaining. Instead, it provides for what is called "collective consultative talks". The PETU defines in detail what these can cover, but the list is restricted to financial issues, covering salaries and other allowances, compensation and bonuses. This falls far short of the definition of collective bargaining contained in ILO Convention 98, and in practice leaves the power of decision making with the government.

Serious limitations on the right to strike: There is still no formally recognised right to strike for the public sector, despite a revision of the PETU in 2005. The ILO has repeatedly stressed that sections 29 and 30 of Act No. 2822, concerning the right to strike, are incompatible with the Convention. The ILO has recalled that restrictions on the right to strike in the public service depend solely on the actual tasks carried out by the public employees concerned. These restrictions should therefore be limited to public servants who exercise authority on behalf of the state and those working in essential services in the strict sense of the term.

Solidarity strikes, general strikes, go-slows and workplace occupations continue to be banned. Severe penalties, including imprisonment, are possible for participation in strikes. Any strike that is not called by a trade union executive body is banned. Strikes over the non-observance of collective labour agreements are forbidden.

Where strikes are allowed, there is an excessively long waiting period (nearly three months) from the start of negotiations to the date when a strike can be held, and the union must follow specific steps. Collective bargaining must take place first. If there is a decision to go ahead with strike action, the employer must be given at least one week's notice. Employers are allowed to lock striking workers out, but not to hire strike-breakers or use administrative staff to do the jobs of the strikers. They may not dismiss workers who encourage or take part in legal strikes.

It is prohibited to prevent raw materials entering a factory or finished products leaving it, and to prevent non-union members from working. Only four or five strikers may form a picket line at the factory gates, and they may not set up a tent or any kind of shelter, nor hang up banners stating anything other than "there is a strike at this workplace".

Should Bill No. 2821 be adopted, several of these restrictions will be lifted, however other restrictions will remain in place.

Limited protection against anti-union discrimination: The minimum number of employees in a workplace needed for job security legislation to apply is 30. As a result of subcontracting and fixed-term contracts, about 95 per cent of workplaces have fewer than 30 employees.

The fines that can be imposed on employers who do not respect trade union rights are too small to be dissuasive. However, the Civil Code has recently been amended in order to change this. As the ruling party has an absolute majority in the Turkish parliament, passing and enacting the new Civil Code should be a formality. The fact that this has still not happened shows that protection against anti-union discrimination is still not a priority in Turkey.

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2008

Full trade union rights not yet established: The November 2008 edition of the European Commission's Progress Report on Turkey's accession to the European Union found that the establishment of full trade union rights remained problematic. It mentioned reports about restrictions on the exercise of existing trade union rights and dismissals due to trade union membership, as well as the need for Turkey to ensure that trade union rights are fully respected in line with EU standards and the relevant ILO conventions, in particular the rights to organise, to strike and to bargain collectively. The percentage of the labour force covered by collective agreements remains low.

Interference in union affairs: As in previous years, the public sector federation KESK reported interference by the public authorities in its own and its affiliates' constitutions. The Ministry of Labour and Social Security considered the use in the unions' constitutions of terms like collective bargaining or the right to strike to be violations of The Public Employees' Trade Unions Law (PETU).

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.

Excessive police violence against peaceful protesters: On May Day, the Istanbul riot police used disproportionate force against a union demonstration to commemorate the 37 workers that were killed there by unidentified gunmen in 1977. The demonstration had been announced by ITUC affiliates KESK, DISK and TÜRK-Is, but banned by the authorities. Subsequently DISK's headquarters were literally besieged. The building itself was blocked so that nobody could get in or out anymore. Although it was full of people, it was inundated with tear gas. A young woman, who had come out because she was experiencing serious respiratory problems, was even hit on the head by the police. A great number of people were injured, officials from DISK- and KESK-affiliated unions were arrested and mistreated by the police, and DISK and KESK union leaders were prevented from moving to a safer place.

On 17 July, 2,000 members of the ICEM-affiliated Belediye-Is (the Municipal and General Workers' Union) marching on an office building of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality to hang a banner announcing their legal strike were repelled by the police.

Trade unionists dismissed: Private sector employers tend to ignore the law and frequently dismiss workers, on a massive scale, for their union activities in order to weaken or destroy unions.

On 14 January, 32 members of Turkey's Hotel, Restaurant and Entertainment Workers' Union TOLEY-Is were forced to resign from their jobs by the BURFAS Bursa Park and Garden Social and Cultural Services management. The same happened to 11 TOLEY-Is members at the M.E.B. Directorate of Teachers' Guest Houses, which falls under the Ministry of Education.

In January, five members of the Tobacco, Drink, Food and Allied Workers' Union of Turkey (TEKGIDA-Is, an affiliate of TÜRK-Is) were dismissed by the management of Gidasa Piyale in Bolu Hendek.

Also in January, eight TEKGIDA-Is members were dismissed by Kaynak Sulari ve Turizm A.S. in Sakarya. After going to court, only five of them were reinstated.

The same month, the Çaykur Enterprise management, which operates 52 plants throughout the country, started forcing workers to join a union known to be close to the government. 9,500 of the 14,000 or so workers at the company were members of TEKGIDA-Is, which had been negotiating collective agreements on their behalf for over 50 years. In blunt denial of these facts, the Ministry of Labour stripped TEKGIDA-Is of its collective bargaining rights, passing them on to the puppet union.

On 26 February, the ITUC protested to Prime Minister Erdogan about the fact that the workers at the Tuzla shipyards seeking to join a union encounter so many obstacles that just 10% of them are affiliated to a union. This is particularly alarming since in the eight months prior to the ITUC's letter no fewer than 18 workers had died at Tuzla's shipyards as a result of dangerous working conditions and inadequate health and safety measures.

In March, 40 TEKGIDA-Is members were fired by LSG Sky Chefs Aviation Services Co., which operates at the airports of Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, Istanbul, Dalaman and Bodrum.

In August, six TEKGIDA-Is members were dismissed by cheese manufacturer Bel Karper Peynir in Çorlu because of their union membership.

Also in August, five TEKGIDA-Is members were dismissed at the Kirikkale plant of the Burgaz Alcoholic Beverage Industry and Trade Company. After going to court, they were all reinstated.

In September, ten workers at the Sivas-based Öncel Oil Company had joined TARIM-Is (an affiliate of TÜRK-Is), which consequently obtained collective bargaining status. The company immediately dismissed the ten workers.

At the Çannakale Bayramiç plant of the Tahsildaroglu Dairy Products Industry and Trade Company, ten TEKGIDA-Is union members were dismissed. Immediately afterwards, the company started outsourcing to subcontractors as a means of impeding the union's organising efforts.

In December 2007, the Yörsan Alimentary Products Industry and Trade Company, Susurluk-Balikesir, started dismissing workers affiliated to TEKGIDA-Is. In all it fired 403 workers. In December 2008, a judge ruled that all the workers must be reinstated or else the company must pay 16 months' wages in severance pay to each worker. The company chose simply to pay the compensation.

Starting in January 2007, the Çelikle Company in Çorum has consistently dismissed workers who have joined the Türkiye Maden Isçileri Sendikasi (Mineworkers' Union of Turkey). The management systematically puts pressure on workers to leave the union and fires those who refuse to do so. To date, a total of 50 workers have been dismissed.

The national Car Workers' Union, TÜMTIS, became the target of a campaign including dismissals and armed violence against its members, arrests based on false charges, detention without trial and violation of the rights of the defence. In November 2007, 18 TÜMTIS leaders and members were apprehended. Seven of them, all from the Ankara Branch leadership, were put in jail until June without appearing in court. In April, 87 workers from Çipa and Simsek Freight Services, both exclusive subcontractors for Unilever, were fired because of their TÜMTIS membership. Only 13 of them were reinstated afterwards. On 1 June, 133 bus drivers in Bursa were dismissed due to their TÜMTIS membership. In October, the same happened to 256 bus drivers in Gaziantep. And at the international port of Mersin, 60 TÜMTIS members were dismissed by Akansel Transportation, a subcontractor for the Akfen and Port of Singapore Authority Joint Venture.

Starting in December 2007, 126 workers at the Çarsamba municipality in Samsun who were affiliated to Belediye-Is, were dismissed and subsequently replaced by workers from a pro-government union. A court ruling said they all had to be reinstated, but the employer refused to do so. In July, 60 other Belediye-Is members were dismissed at the Çapa and Cerrahpasa hospitals, both subsidiaries of the University Hospital of Istanbul.

In the course of the year, a total of 116 workers, all of them affiliated to Turkey's Cooperative and Office Workers' Union KOOP-Is, were dismissed from Praktiker, Bauhaus, Ikea and Adese stores in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana, Gaziantep and Konya, because they had participated in union activities.

In October, the KESK-affiliated teachers' union EGITIM-Sen, which has appeared in our Survey for many consecutive years, had its website blocked by the authorities. On 21 and 22 October, the Denizli Branch of the union was attacked by the police, which proceeded to confiscate a large number of documents. The union was also prevented from using the clipboards intended for trade union posters and announcements in most public institutions, in particular the ministries of Justice, Labour and Social Security, Health and Education, which are held by the ruling party AKP. Furthermore, a great number of EGITIM-Sen branch leaders and members have been transferred to other posts, and often other cities, owing to their participation in union activities.

In the course of 2008, KESK noted an increasing targeting of its union executives and branch leaders. Two presidents of affiliated unions were dismissed from their posts as public servants: the SES (Health and Social Services Employees' Union) President, Bedriye Yorgun, and the DIVES President, Lokman Özdemir.

The most blatant case of dismissal of a trade union leader took place in November, however, when Meryem Öszögüt, Head of the SES's Legal and Women's Affairs Department, was fired. Ms. Öszögüt had spent eight months in jail simply for having attended a press conference organised by her union at which the killing of another female TU activist, Kevser Mizrak, was denounced. She had been kept in detention based on trumped-up charges of belonging to a "terrorist organisation".

Eleven leading members of KESK or its affiliates, including its former President Hakki Tombul, former EGITIM-Sen President Alaaddin Dinçer and former BTS President Fehmi Kutan, still risk jail sentences as their court cases are still pending. These cases were initiated after EGITIM-Sen's "Great Educators' March" in November 2005.

In total, 26 executive members of both the KESK headquarters as well as several of its branch offices were subjected to judicial enquiries. Moreover, more than 600 of its members had to undergo "disciplinary enquiries" for having taken part in trade union activities.

On 19 December, the management of Sinter Metal Technologies, located in the Dudullu Organised Industrial Zone, used false pretexts to fire 38 workers involved in trade union activities. The following Monday, a majority of the 470 workers employed there occupied the plant and demanded their reinstatement. In response, management dismissed all but 50 workers. On 23 December, the police removed the occupants by force.

At the Kalibre Boru Sanayi Ve. Ticaret S.A. plant in Kocaeli, eight members of the BIRLESIK trade union were dismissed on 15 December 2007. Later, 89 members of the union were forced to resign from it following pressure and intimidation by the management. The situation further escalated when, on 11 January, 50 workers were left with no other option than to leave the union or lose their jobs. Subsequently, another 39 workers were forced to resign from the union.

In April, ITGLWF affiliate Teksif began an organising campaign at the Venüs Giyim Sanayi ve Dis Ticaret A.S. factory in Düzce. Some 25 workers were dismissed. Others were called into the office, shown pictures of the workers and asked to identify those who had attended union meetings. One worker was lured into a manager's car at night and questioned for two hours about his union activities. When he lodged a complaint, one of the managers threatened he would never work in the town again unless he signed the retraction that was dictated to him.

On 29 April, five workers were fired at the Desa leather goods plant in Düzce. They were all members of ITGLWF affiliate Türkiye Deri-Is Sendikasi, which had begun organising workers at the factory earlier that month. On 30 April, after management had refused to meet with the union's leaders, a group of leaders and members stood outside the factory holding placards. Management called in the police and all the protesters were detained for the day. From May on, the company management started to put pressure on workers to leave the union, by inviting speakers to the factory, ranging from the General Manager to an army colonel, who told them that "trade unionists are all Kurds, why would you want to join them". Another 58 workers were dismissed, and 53 were forced to resign from the union. In July, Deri-Is took 38 cases to Düzce labour court. When the employer claimed that it had no representation at the plant, the union submitted its duly confirmed membership to the court. These forms were then passed on to Desa's lawyer. The company showed the forms to the workers, saying that their union was selling their names to their employer.

In October 2007, ITGLWF affiliate Öz Iplik-Is had applied for bargaining rights at the Ekoten Textile Company in Izmir. Just prior to the union's application, the company fired 42 key union supporters. The workers were made to sign two separate documents: one stating that they had been laid off and the second stating that they were leaving voluntarily, in which case they are not entitled to compensation. The workers were told they would not receive compensation if they did not sign both documents. The company then immediately proceeded to replace those who had been dismissed. On 7 February, the ITGLWF approached the company, urging it to reinstate the workers and negotiate in good faith with Öz Iplik-Is. The company denied the allegations, saying many of the workers had debts and that it would be doing them a disservice to deny them a means of paying off their debts through being laid off with compensation. In September, the ITGLWF wrote to the brands known to be sourcing from the factory. Ekoten did not respond to a request to organise a meeting.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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