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

In 2010, many workers were forced to resign from the union of their choice to join management friendly organisations. The worrying trend of judicial harassment of trade unions continued, and many workers were laid off due to their union membership. The Constitution was partially amended in 2010 to grant more freedoms, however trade union rights remain excessively restricted in laws.


Trade union rights are not adequately secured in the law. While freedom of association is enshrined in the Constitution, Turkish citizenship is a requirement for forming a union or becoming a union officer. Several categories of workers are also excluded from this right, including in the public sector. Trade unions are also not able to operate freely: Unions cannot be established on an occupational or workplace basis, their internal organisation and their activities are minutely regulated – leading to repeated interference by the authorities – and they must obtain permission from the authorities to organise meetings or rallies. The police must be allowed to attend the 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.

The Constitution was partially amended in 2010 to allow for collective bargaining also in the public sector, however the thresholds for recognition are inordinately high for all unions. Furthermore, the right to strike is limited, and there is an excessively long waiting period – nearly three months – before a lawful strike can be called. Picketing is very restricted, strikes over the non-observance of collective agreements are prohibited, and the law bans strikes in many services that cannot be considered essential. Severe penalties, including imprisonment, are possible for participation in unlawful strikes. The law also grants the Council of Ministers the possibility to suspend for 60 days a lawful strike for reasons of public health or national security and then to refer the matter to compulsory arbitration.


Background: For the first time in 33 years, unions were allowed to demonstrate on Taksim Square in Istanbul, after over 30 people were killed there on May Day in 1977. The demonstrations went peacefully and were a success for the Turkish union movement. However, as Prime Minister Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) party tightens its grip on power, it seems to grow ever more intransigent towards the unions. This sadly culminated in the actual refusal by the Turkish Minister of Labour and Social Justice to receive the ILO's High Level Bipartite Mission in March.

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.

ILO mission not received by Minister of Labour: An ILO high-level bipartite mission, consisting of the Employers' and Workers' spokespersons of the International Labour Conference Committee on the Application of Standards, Mr Ed Potter and Mr Luc Cortebeeck, as well as other ILO officials and the Director of the ILO Office in Ankara, visited Turkey between 3 and 5 March 2010. The mission took place following the conclusions of the Committee in June 2009, when the Government was requested to accept a high-level bipartite mission with the aim of assisting it in making meaningful progress on long outstanding issues raised by the ILO supervisory bodies with regard to the application of ILO Convention 87. There had already been an earlier high-level ILO mission to Turkey in April 2008.

While in Ankara, the mission met with representatives of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, trade unions, the employers' association and the chairperson of the Parliamentary Health, Family, Labour and Social Affairs Commission. It did not get an opportunity, however, to meet with the Minister of Labour and Social Security and the Minister of State, as well as with other high-level personalities of the Republic, which it thoroughly regretted. The mission welcomed the tripartite consensus that any future legislation on trade union rights should be fully in compliance with Conventions Nos. 87 and 98. It also emphasised that ultimately it is for the Government to ensure compliance with its international obligations.

More workers forced to change union affiliation: In March, in Eleskirt hospital in Agri, workers affiliated to KESK-affiliated Health and Social Service Workers' Union (SES) were visited by a delegation of Saglik-Sen, a union which is friendly to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). They were threatened and forced to resign from SES, and promised better contracts if they would join Saglik-Sen, which around 30 of them eventually did.

Anti-union dismissals at sub-contractor of the General Directorate of Agricultural Enterprises: In July, 24 workers, affiliated to the Forestry Agriculture & Agricultural Industry Workers Union of Turkey (TARIM-IS), were dismissed because of their union membership by a sub-contractor of the General Directorate of Agricultural Enterprises (TIGEM). A further three workers were forced to resign from the union by the same employer.

Workers take to court to get their rights respected: On 9 August, 23 dismissed Birlesik Metal IS members were reinstated after a week long peaceful factory occupation and strike for reinstatement. The workers at Çel-mer Metal company in Gebze Cayirova, Turkey had originally joined Birlesik Metal IS, a DISK affiliate, in early summer. Upon discovering union activity inside the steel factory, the company suddenly dismissed 12 workers. The workers began a public struggle for reinstatement in front of the plant and obtained this on 29 June. However, instead of starting to negotiate a first collective agreement, the company continued to pressure workers to resign from the union. After this failed, Çel-mer dismissed 23 more workers on 16 July. On 2 August, the 23 dismissed workers re-entered the plant and the whole workforce began a sit-in strike. Family members and supporters set up a tent in front of the factory. The company requested and was granted police back-up. The action drew great attention in and outside Turkey. During the tense time period of police surveillance in front of the sit-in occupation, local groups such as the Turkish UPS workers in TUMTIS as well as international ones sent solidarity delegations. An agreement in favour of the workers was concluded on 5 August.

Trade union leader interrogated for giving interview abroad: On 19 October, Mehmet Sitki Dehset, President of the Urfa branch of the KESK-affiliated teachers' union Egitim Sen, did an interview on the well-known Dutch news show "Eén Vandaag". In this interview, he commented on the problems with child labour in the hazelnut sector in Turkey. He told the interviewer about an investigation carried out in 2007 which had found that about 70.000 children in the region of Sanliurfa finished school "early" every year, and started "late", resulting in them helping their parents with the harvest during six to eight months. After the Turkish authorities found out about this interview, they interrogated Dehset because they believed ha had exaggerated the figures, which would amount to "just" 35.000. At the year's end, Mehmet Sitki Dehset still risked losing his job.

Dismissed unionists reinstated by court: After two years of struggle, the Sinter Metal workers dismissed on 22 December 2008 won their reinstatement cases on 13 December 2010. The legal cases were launched by their union Birlesik Metal-Is, a DISK affiliate, immediately after their dismissal in December 2008. The workers had been dismissed under the pretext of poor performance and of economic crises, but the court declared that the reason behind the dismissals was the workers' trade union membership. The court ordered that the workers be reinstated.

Judicial harassment – court cases against trade unions: Numerous Turkish trade union organisations, such as the DERIIS textile workers' union, the Birlesik Metal-Is metal workers' union, the HABER-IS communications workers' union, the HAVA-IS air transport workers' union and the transport workers' union TUMTIS, all organise private sector workers and are all facing criminal charges. All court cases are characterised by baseless charges, often involving vague allegations of setting up or belonging to "terrorist organisations".

One of the most arrant cases has been what became known as the "KESK trial". On 22 October 2010, in a hearing that only lasted 15 minutes, the Izmir High Court yet again postponed its decision in the case concerning 31 public sector unionists, including 27 Egitim Sen leaders and members. The charges against the defendants remained the same as those shortly after their arrest in May 2009, i.e. providing "intellectual support to illegal organisations". The defendants are either members of KESK or its affiliate Egitim-Sen, and are either Kurdish or have links with the Kurdish community. They were arrested on 28 May 2009 following months of phone taps and monitoring of personal e-mails. Their homes and workplaces were searched and computers confiscated. The arrests were conducted in a very brutal way. All defendants risk up to ten years of imprisonment. Since their arrest and detention in May 2009, the trial has been postponed four times, on 22 November 2009, and on 2 March, 22 June and 22 October 2010. All this time, the defendants have been under a travelling ban, which prevented Egitim Sen Women's Secretary Gulçin Isbert from attending the Education International World Women's Conference.

Judicial harassment – trade union activists imprisoned: The public sector union KESK has in general been hit very hard by systematic judicial harassment, which at times seems tailored to bring the union to its knees.

Seher Tümer, Executive Board member of the KESK-affiliated Health and Social Service Workers' Union (SES) was detained in her workplace, Ankara's Zekai Tahir Burak Women's Health Training and Research Hospital, on 17 April, and was officially arrested on 20 April 2009. She was accused of belonging to an illegal armed organisation because on 22 March 2009 she had attended the traditional "Newroz" festival in Ankara, because she had participated in the International Women's Day on 8 March 2009, and because of certain books and magazines which allegedly had been found in her house. She had stood trial a first time on 28 July 2009, a second time on 27 August 2009, a third time on 23 October 2009, and a fourth time on 18 December 2009. She had remained in prison throughout this whole period. On 9 March 2010 she had to appear in court again, and was eventually convicted to seven years and four months of prison. She remained in prison by the end of the year while the union appealed against her draconian sentence. Ms. Tümer was initially arrested at a time when she was bringing public attention to the deaths of babies, which were occurring at the Zekai Tahir Burak Women's Health Training and Research Hospital as part of her legitimate work as a trade unionist. During her trials, it has often been stated that she works for a union.

On 15 June, Akma Simsek, Secretary of the KESK Education and Organising Department, Ahmet Danacioglu, Executive Board member of KESK affiliate BES and Meryem Ozsögüt, Law, Collective Bargaining and Women's Secretary of KESK affiliate SES, were arrested and detained. Meryem Ozsögüt had already been detained for 8 months in 2008. They were arrested for participating in a demonstration in front of an AKP building. Meryem Ozsögüt was released on 22 July.

Lokman Özdemir, President of the Religion and Foundation Workers Trade Union (DIVES), a KESK affiliate, was arrested on 24 August, without there being any legal basis for the charges brought against him.

Metin Findik of Tüm Bel Sen (Union of All Municipality Civil Servants) was locked up in an E-Type prison on 17 June 2009. The public prosecutor ordered that the case be treated in secrecy, meaning that his lawyers could not have access to his file, know about the allegations against, or prepare his defence. Metin was arrested shortly after taking part in the union's elections, during which he was vocal in defending the rights of trade unions to strike and bargain collectively. He was still in prison by the end of 2010.

On 18 March, husband and wife Ferit and Belkiza Epözdemir, both members of Tüm Bel Sen, were arrested. They have three children, the youngest of whom is just three years old. Ferit and Belkiza were locked up in an E-type prison which was built to accommodate 400 prisoners, but actually held 856 people. The typical pattern of vague references to terrorist organisations was repeated in their case and their lawyers have been denied access to their case file. Both of them are still in prison.

The list of KESK activists who remain incarcerated is long. Other blatant cases include Olcay Kanlibas, former SES Executive Board member, arrested on 14 April 2009 and detained in Midyat prison, Mardin, where she remains to date; Ahmet Zirek, Tüm Bel Sen Diyarbakir Branch member, also arrested on 14 April 2009, still detained in Diyarbakir; Ayhan Kurtulan, former Egitim Sen Kars Branch leader, in prison since 16 March 2010; Tuncer Usar, former Egitim Sen branch manager, arrested on 23 April and detained on 26 April, in prison to date; and Aynur Sahin, SES Urfa Branch member and mother of a three year old, arrested on 5 October and still in prison.

The TEKEL workers' case – workers forced to accept inferior working conditions: The Turkish government's decision to privatise TEKEL (former state tobacco and alcohol monopoly) warehouses led to the dismissal of 12,000 workers. These workers, along with their families and supporters, started demonstrating on 15 December 2009. The protest began in front of the headquarters of Prime Minister Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), but the police cleared the area on 16 December and forced the demonstrators to a nearby park. The following day, police put up barricades around the park and then used water hoses and tear gas against the demonstrators. Police violence escalated and clubs were used against the demonstrators, many of whom had to be hospitalised. Mustafa Türkel, President of Tekgida-Is, which represents these workers and is affiliated to TURK-Is, and General Secretary of Türk-Is, were arrested, but then released later that evening. The police violence caused an outcry in the Turkish Parliament, but the government continued to refuse to accede to the workers' demand that they be given alternative employment with full employee benefits, as the law on privatisation provides.

In 2010, after 78 days of protesting, the workers ceased their action only to return to the streets of Ankara on 1 April for a one-day protest against working under Article 4/C of Law No. 657 (on working conditions of public employees), which restricts them to lower wages and fewer employee rights. Workers coming from different provinces were not allowed to enter the city in groups and convene at their previously scheduled meeting point in front of TURK-Is headquarters. Police and workers subsequently clashed in different parts of the city. Workers from KESK, who came to the city center in a show of support for the Tekel workers, similarly faced police using pepper gas.

The union took the Article 4/C case to court, as the measure in itself contravened Turkish law. The government, however, financially forced workers to resume work under Article 4/C after it blocked the union's solidarity fund account in September. As the court case was postponed time and again, most workers, in need of an income, saw no other option but to resume working.

Anti-union dismissals at UPS subcontractors: In the course of a few months, by end September 160 workers who worked for UPS and its sub-contractors in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, were dismissed after having registered their membership with the TURK-Is-affiliated Türkiye Motorlu Tasit Isçileri Sendikasi TÜMTIS. Other workers have also been continuously harassed and intimidated by local UPS management in order to either prevent them from joining or make them resign from the union. In July there was even a shooting incident, when the manager of a sub-contractor fired shots outside the offices of a public notary in Izmir, where he had tried to force workers to resign their union membership.

On 17 April, 31 workers were also dismissed at one of UPS's sub-contractors, C.I.B. Human Services and Cleaning Services Inc. The dismissed workers had previously been requested by their depot managers to sign a form which said they would abstain from any claims against the termination of their employment contract.

Anti-union dismissals of KOOP-Is members: Since 2005, the TURK-Is-affiliated Cooperative, Commerce & Office Workers' Union of Turkey (KOOP-IS) has been trying to obtain collective bargaining status at the Praktiker DIY Stores Co. Turkey in Istanbul. The legal procedure for this is so lengthy that in 2010, the union could still not engage in collective bargaining in the workplace. The employer has been taking advantage of gaps in the existing laws, thus extending the procedure. In the meantime around 500 union members have been dismissed without motivation, while some of them have had to work without a pay increase for years. The union took the issue to court, trying to obtain all workers' reinstatement. The case was still pending at the end of the year.

Furthermore, five KOOP-Is members were dismissed between 1 April and 12 November at IKEA in Osmangazi-Bursa, three between 2 July and 26 November at ADESE Shopping Centers Co. Turkey in Konya, and six between 19 April and 18 May at KOCTAS DIY Stores Co. in Istanbul. In all cases, they were forced by the employer, either individually or collectively, to resign from the union. Qualified workers who resisted were downgraded and then relocated before being dismissed.

Workers forced to resign from their union: By November 2010, 127 members of the TURK-Is-affiliated Cement, Ceramics, Soil & Glass Industry Workers Union of Turkey (Türkiye ÇIMSE-IS SENDIKASI) at AKG Insulation and Construction Materials Industry & Trade Co. had to resign from the union after having been fiercely pressured by the employer. The union initiated a legal procedure which was still pending by the end of the year.

Since 20 April, workers at the Istanbul-based Medmar Marble and Mining Co. have also been threatened and intimidated in order to dissuade them from becoming a member of the TURKIs-affiliated Miners' Union of Turkey. Immediately after adhering to the union, seven workers' contracts were suspended by the employer. During the union's organisation efforts, the employer brought the notary public to the workplace in order to force new members to resign from the union. Furthermore, 34 union members were dismissed following their participation in a meeting of their union branch. In breach of Turkish law, they did not receive their severance pay or due annual leave payments.

Workers forced to change their union membership: At Kardemir Co. in Karabuk, 65 workers who were affiliated to the TURK-Is-affiliated metal workers' union Türk Metal Sendikasi were forced to take leave, of whom 11 unpaid, and resign from their union. Subsequently, in three days' time, 2,100 workers changed their union membership to the employer-friendly Turkish Metal, Steel Ammunition, Machinery, Metal Products and Auto Assembly Allied Workers Union (Çelik-Is) after they had been promised better wages and more decent working and living conditions. While addressing the workers, a Çelik-Is director even stated that workers who had been sent on leave would only be permitted to return to their jobs if they resigned from Türk Metal and changed their membership to Çelik-Is. After they refused to do so, 29 of them were dismissed. The employer announced that it would not talk to Türk Metal, even if it was officially granted collective bargaining status. Since then, workers and their family members have been harassed and threatened, including by private security agents hired by the employer. There have even been a number of suicide attempts among the workers. The employer has also attempted to collect signatures for resignation from Türk Metal under the supervision of notary public officials. Türk Metal has taken the issue to court.

Harassment, intimidation, dismissal and further anti-union tactics: In February 2010, new members of Birlesik Metal-Is at Ekoendustri came under attack by management, which fired 15 active union leaders after the workers applied for union representation to the Labour Ministry. Other union members faced intense harassment and intimidation by the company, which pressured workers to resign from Birlesik Metal-Is or face dismissal. In August and September 2009, the union had begun an organising drive inside Ekoendustri, a company that produces automotive components, white goods components and also sports equipment.

In February, TURK-Is affiliate TES-KOOP-IS protested against problems with the management of Tesco Kipa Store in Istanbul. It denounced management's behaviour which included penalising union members, cross-examining them and forcing some of them to resign from the union. Those who refused were fired without due explanation. Since 2003 the union has been trying to organise workers at Tesco Kipa stores, and as a result many workers have been dismissed or have had their promotions blocked.

In November, six workers who had been involved in union organisation activities for the National Port and Land Stevedores' Union of Turkey (Liman-Is), a TURK-Is affiliate, were dismissed by a subcontractor at the Mersin Port Services, Seamanship & Transportation Trade Co. The union, however, reacted swiftly and provided them with employment at another subcontractor of the same company.

End December, Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen International (ISG) dismissed 160 workers without following the procedures required by Turkish law. The TURK-Is-affiliated civil aviation workers' union Hava-Is pointed out that the dismissals occurred just a few days after a ruling by the Court of Appeal, which confirmed the Ministry of Labour and Social Security's decision that ISG should be treated under the 'air transport' branch of activity for the purposes of trade union establishment procedures.

This 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.