Istanbul, Turkey – Organized labor in Turkey is experiencing a moment.
In January, after more than two weeks on strike, journalists at the BBC bureau in Istanbul won a 32% pay rise from management. Paid in Turkish liras, the workers walked off after rejecting the company’s offer of a 20% pay rise.
In another notch for the labor belt, drivers at Turkish e-commerce giant Trendyol turned down management’s offer of an 11% pay rise, went on strike and won a pay rise of 38.8%.
While over 30% wage gains look hugely impressive in many parts of the world, in Turkey they don’t even keep up with the cost of living.
The country’s currency lost more than 40% of its value against the US dollar last year following successive central bank interest rate cuts championed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan insists that lower interest rates fight inflation – a view that runs directly counter to mainstream economic theory, according to which lower borrowing costs fuel higher prices.
Indeed, price pressures have continued into the new year, with consumer price inflation exceeding 48% in January, according to the government statistics office.
This is the highest level in two decades, but even this staggering figure may grossly underestimate the true rate of increase. The Independent Inflation Research Group (ENAG) pegs Turkey’s inflation rate north of 114%. The government disputes this figure.
No matter how you measure it, the purchasing power of Turks has been decimated. The government has taken steps to try to ease the burden. Erdogan said on Saturday that the value-added tax on essential food items would be cut from 8% to 1% and warned private sector companies that the government expects them to lower their prices to reflect the news. Politics.
The government also increased the minimum wage earlier this year by 50%. But that gain has been more than offset by the government’s decision to switch to a progressive tariff system that dramatically raises the prices of natural gas and electricity – a move that has sparked protests in cities across the country.
“As cold weather moves to heavily populated western parts of the country, triple-digit utility price hikes are affecting more people,” said Atilla Yesilada, economist and analyst at Global Source Partners.
Yesilada told Al Jazeera that Turkey is experiencing “an unusually high number of strikes” this year because private sector wage increases in low-skilled service jobs have not kept up with wage increases for civil servants and pensioners. .
At least 56 worker strikes broke out in Turkey between January 12 and February 10, according to the Labor Studies Group, an independent research initiative. This compares to the 84 strikes the government monitored between 2016 and 2020.
Erkan Kidak, a research assistant in the Department of Labor Economics and Industrial Relations at Pamukkale University in Turkey, said conditions were ripe for workers to demand a better deal.
“Two preconditions must be met for the working class in Turkey to revolt,” he told Al Jazeera. “The first of these is the decline in purchasing power, and the second is the weakening of their bosses and the government. As the two prerequisites were met, workers employed in different sectors all over Turkey revolted.
Management pushes back
Earlier this month, drivers of the online food delivery service Yemeksepeti went on strike after refusing a pay rise which union organizers said was below the rate of inflation.
Yemeksepeti, which is owned by German Delivery Hero, was also accused of engaging in union busting.
Kenan Ozturk, president of the All Transport Workers’ Union, said Yemeksepeti last year reclassified its drivers from “transport” workers to “office/commerce” workers to thwart collective bargaining efforts and is even went to court to have the union’s authorization to represent them revoked.
“More recently, Yemeksepeti started to pressure its insured employees to become independent contractors,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that “the goal was to get rid of the union altogether.”
Yemeksepeti and Delivery Driver did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment. In the meantime, workers continue to demonstrate in Ankara and Izmir for their right to engage in union activities without harassment, as well as a salary that is not lower than inflation, Ozturk said.
Some companies react to industrial action by laying off employees. On February 9, Migros, one of Turkey’s largest supermarket chains, dismissed more than 250 strikers at its warehouse in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district.
The workers walked off the job on February 3 to protest the company’s wage increase – which they said amounted to 8% – and to demand an additional increase in income of four Turkish liras per hour.
Migros issued a statement defending its actions, saying the laid off employees were preventing those who wanted to work from doing their jobs. He also said claims he had only raised wages by 8% were “misleading” and workers at the fulfillment center saw an average wage increase of 54% including bonuses.
A later statement from the union representing the workers said that Migros had raised wages only 8% above the minimum wage.
Companies that don’t give in to workers’ demands don’t come out unscathed – at least in the court of public opinion.
News of the Migros layoffs has led to a social media campaign calling for a boycott of the grocer, while some of the sacked workers continue to attract press attention by staging public protests.
Migros emekçileri haklarını alana kadar ben de #MigrosaGitmiyorum pic.twitter.com/wFlzv9yYix
— orhan aydın (@orhanaydin6) February 10, 2022
The Yemeksepeti drivers, with their eye-catching bright pink jackets, have meanwhile become a symbol of the sharp increase in strike action in Turkey. On February 10, they gathered in front of the company’s headquarters in Istanbul, chanting: “We don’t want a pittance”, “We want to live humanely” and “We will win by resisting”.
“The Year of the Strike”
Union organizers say that as long as workers’ wages are below inflation, they will not back down.
“Under these conditions, it has become impossible for people to survive; it’s unbearable,” Ozturk said. “This is the underlying reason for this wave [of strikes] and in the coming period, these workers’ protests will grow even larger and spread to other sectors.
And some believe that the more strike actions lead to workers’ victory, the more they will inspire others to follow suit.
“The success of BBC Istanbul bureau staff will encourage the entire media sector – where the lack of union membership runs deep – to take action against precarious employment, low pay and poor working conditions,” said Ilkay Akkaya, general secretary of the Journalists’ Union. of Turkey, noting that this was the first media strike in Turkey for more than a decade.
“Of course a strike is our last resort,” she told Al Jazeera.
And few see labor falling until inflation does too.
“I think the wave of strikes will continue in 2022 as inflation continues to rise and political instability manifests,” Kidak said. “I predict that 2022 will be characterized as the year of the strike in Turkey.”