The following text is of a speech delivered by Clare Baker, international officer for Unite the Union, at an event entitled “Ocalan and the Road to a Peaceful Political Solution to the Kurdish Question,” held on 23 March 2021, regarding her participation in the most recent International Peace Delegation to Imrali in February of this year. More information about this event can be found here: https://www.peaceinkurdistancampaign.com/panel-discussion-ocalan-and-the-road-to-peaceful-political-solution-of-the-kurdish-question/
As with previous Imrali delegations we were honoured to meet with some fantastic organisations and we truly appreciated the time they gave, us especially in face of the repression and attacks they constantly live under in Turkey at the moment. The delegation was privileged to meet with KESK, the public services trade union federation, who spent some time highlighting the situation facing independent trade unionists in Turkey.
Turkey has a long history of coups and military rule which has led to civil society existing under intense pressure from a state that views any independent organisations as a threat.
Any free civil society that has been allowed to develop, such as trade unions, has been subjected to a huge assault from the government. This repression intensified massively following the failed coup d’état against the Erdogan government in August 2016.
The situation that faces the trade unions, that faces Ocalan, and that faces the Kurds in Turkey is intrinsically linked. Erdogan is attacking all progressive forces in the country; the war on the Kurds has extended to a war on all who oppose him and who stand up for human and worker rights in the country.
In the recent ITUC global rights index Turkey sits in the top 10 worst countries for workers.
KESK reported to us that trade union members and human rights defenders continue to face serious problems in Turkey. These problems include judicial harassment, as in the case of arrest, and detention as well as court cases.
This current oppressive political situation along with a deficient Turkish legal system allows private sector employers who sack workers for union activity to pay compensation instead of reinstating the workers they unfairly dismiss.
Employers in Turkey frequently fire union worker leaders in masse once they become aware of workers’ union organizing efforts to create an environment of fear and intimidation in the workplace. This typically crushes workers’ efforts to organise a union, and is most prevalent in situations when workers are attempting to organise within independent trade union federations, such as DISK and KESK, without links to the ruling AKP party. The compensation, which employers frequently pay in lieu of reinstatement, can be factored in by companies as merely a cost of doing business in Turkey. The option to pay compensation in lieu of reinstatement also puts Turkey in a position of not conforming to its obligations under ILO Conventions 87 & 98. In the public sector in which KESK operates they may not be subject to the compensation regime but their members face arrest and jail every time they speak out against government policy, the AKP party, or for even just for peace.
Real independent trade unions – such as KESK and DISK confederations – have found it extremely difficult to function and organise. Pro government unions, which collaborate with employers to undermine free collective bargaining – such as HA-KISH and the majority (but not all) of TURK-ISH – have been supported by government and business in their attempts to replace real trade unions.
Independent trade unions have displayed real bravery by continuing to defend works rights and campaign for peace – and the reports given to the Imrali delegation show that unions are continuing to face repression, violence and intimidation including;
- Hundreds of thousands of people have been dismissed from their jobs or imprisoned without any due process on the basis of flimsy evidence and with no free or fair trial, with numbers around 200,000 fired from work in the last 4 years.
- The killing of over 100 union members when a trade union peace demonstration was bombed in 2015.
- Renault workers and union officials handed suspended prison sentences for union activity in 2016 at the Renault car plant in Turkey. Their crime was to demonstrate for the right to organise and for the reinstatement of sacked trade unionists.
- The murder of trade union leaders including Abdullah Karacan, who was murdered in November 2018 whilst visiting a Goodyear factory in Turkey
- At the Istanbul airport construction site workers went on strike protesting against fatalities and indecent working conditions. Military police used excessive force against them and some 600 workers were violently arrested. 35 workers including the President of the construction section of the DISK confederation as well as leaders of InSat – ISH Union were sent to prison. Following the days of strike action around 2700 workers were dismissed; those workers are now unemployed and as they are blacklisted they cannot find new jobs.
- Nearly 3 years ago 14 production workers at Cargill’s starch factory in Turkey were dismissed while trying to organise a union, those workers are still trying to fight for their jobs. While the company blames economic reasons for the dismissal, they have hired new unskilled workers replacing those dismissed. Cargill is a large multinational with sites across the globe, and clearly opportunistically uses the current repressive situation in Turkey to union bust.
- Arzu Cerkezoglu, a medical doctor and president of both the Turkish trade union federation DISK and the Union of Health Workers, was arrested and charged with “provoking people to be rancorous and hostile” following comments she made at a CHP public debate in 2016. At the trial, the prosecution also added “insulting the president” to the charges against her.
So, the erosion of democracy, rights and the rule of law in Turkey means that defending workers’ rights comes with extraordinary risks. In fact, many trade unionists that the union movement in the UK speak to in Turkey are under investigation by the state and likely will face trial.
The trade union representatives that the delegation spoke to highlighted a recurring theme that we heard throughout the delegation; that international organisations such as the CPT have not done enough against or taken a sufficient stance against the human rights violations in Turkey. The pro-Erdogan stance of many countries was highlighted, that of the US and the European Union – especially Germany and the UK– and what that means in terms of addressing the human Rights situation in Turkey. Decisions to support the rights and freedoms of Kurds, trade unionists, journalists, women, or teachers aren’t taken, and decisions to actively oppose the expansionist and aggressive foreign policy of Turkey are also not taken – the economic interests of their relationship with Turkey takes precedent.
The international community needs to have Turkey onside because of the geo-political position it holds in the Middle East, but in addition to this the European Union, the UK government and the international community as a whole are basically being blackmailed by Erdogan with the huge number of refugees that are in Turkey from the Syrian conflict.
Where the EU may be quick to act on abuses of human and worker rights, say in Myanmar and Belarus, where there is less geo-political or economic complications, their reaction to a similar situation in Turkey is muted.
In the UK, the government’s desperation for a trade deal at any costs has led it to make a deal with Turkey without any demands on worker, civil or human rights. This shows us in how little regard they themselves hold these rights, and is a reason why the trade union movement in the UK must speak out against the deal.
The agreement contains no enforceable commitments for Turkey to respect labour rights. This will mean it will not be possible to use the UK-Turkey agreement to stop the government of Turkey abusing the rights of unions and workers and committing widespread human rights abuses. The UK TUC along with DISK and KESK federations in Turkey have called for the suspension of the deal until Turkey respects fundamental human and worker rights.
The commitment contained within the agreement that both parties will seek to commence a review of the agreement within two years, with the aim of expanding it, with no or very little scrutiny is also of great concern to workers in both countries, as it will likely drive down workers conditions in both countries. It is a concern too for the Kurdish community in the UK as working together more closely could possibly mean an expansion of Turkey’s war against the Kurds into the UK.
The Imrali delegation meetings showed that Turkey will link any organisation that opposes the AKP party or does not fall into their ultra-nationalistic policies with terrorism. These organisations are then criminalised and banned – we see this happening with the HDP and Kurdish organisations right now, and we are seeing that seep into wider civil society including trade unions.
This argument, to accuse any opposing group of terrorism, gives governments like the UK, who economically want to trade with Turkey, who want Turkey to keep the refugees off their shores, and who want to militarily align with Tukey in the region, an excuse to hide behind when challenged over Turkey’s human and worker rights abuses. So we see the HDP linked to terrorism, we see independent trade unions, women’s organisations and human rights groups who speak out in favour of peace, or against polices of the government, linked to terrorism.
Companies take their cue from the governments of which their businesses are situated in. In Turkey pitting one group of people against another is widespread – obviously most prevalent with the Kurds – and companies take their cue from that. As we are frequently seeing now independent trade unions are busted by yellow or company/government aligned unions, those that try to organise are sacked or arrested, and those that go on strike are sacked or arrested. Yet no multinational is preventing the persecution of trade unions and trade unionists from taking place in Turkey; they are in fact opportunistically using it to their own advantage.
The politics of security and war are sadly vote winners in Turkey and along with the ongoing economic crisis, which in the pandemic has only increased in severity, there is a lot of poverty and a lot of unemployment, which the government covers up with violence, with populism and nationalism, and with war. Sadly this is a method of control that we are seeing spreading to our own countries and we in the trade union movement need to play our part in challenging this wherever we see it – as we know where it leads, especially for the working classes.
Moving forward the delegation concluded that solidarity among trade unions needs to be extended internationally. Trade unions should be encouraged to express their solidarity officially, speak out publicly against the diminishment of workers’ rights in Turkey and the state’s crackdown on trade unions, and support the Kurdish movement and the freedom of Öcalan.
Additionally, and controversially in the wider global trade union movement, trade unions should condemn the state aligned unions in Turkey that participate in the marginalisation and criminalisation of workers, and seek their exclusion from international trade union confederations and conferences.
The situation that faces the trade unions, that faces Ocalan and that faces the Kurds in Turkey are all intrinsically linked. Progressive forces in the country are under attack. The war on the Kurds and the isolation of Ocalan and his ideas has extended to a war and isolation on all who oppose Erdogan and who stand up for human and worker rights in the country. We cannot campaign for the human rights of the Kurds without too campaigning for the rights of trade unions, free civil society in the country and Ocalan’s freedom – and vice versa.