Gülistan Atasoy, Women’s Secretary of the KESK Trade Union

Originally published: http://www.kurdistan-report.de/index.php/english/1182-the-curtailment-of-women-s-and-labor-rights-destroys-people-s-lives-in-turkey-guelistan-atasoy-women-s-secretary-of-the-kesk-trade-union-september-25-2021


Trade union rights and freedoms, human rights and democracy have always been problematic in Turkey. During the AKP’s nineteen years in power, neoliberal policies have been implemented in their most extreme form, and attacks on working people have increased. Especially since 2015, the political leadership has become even more authoritarian, aligning itself with law-and-order policies and intensifying the repression of all oppositional milieus. Also, the legal restrictions in the working life of working people, their rights and freedoms, and the obstruction of the exercise of their trade union rights have become a constant state of affairs. However, the situation in our country, which has already experienced many military as well as political coups and coup attempts, has worsened significantly after the coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Even though the state of emergency that was subsequently imposed has been officially lifted, it continues to exist in practice. We are confronted with a policy of systematic repression and assaults that rivals and, by some measures, even surpasses those in the days of the military coups.

First and foremost among trade union rights is the right to work. Guaranteed by our country’s constitution, it has been practically suspended since the AKP government declared a state of emergency in 2016 until today. Through the decrees issued, this right has been taken away from more than 130,000 public sector employees without appeal, hearing or evidence, and they have been dismissed. Among them were 4,272 members and officials of the KESK1. In order to delay the appeal under international law, a commission of inquiry was established to which those affected could appeal. However, this commission was dependent on the government, not neutral, and part of the administration. This administrative commission was given the right to decide without hearing those affected; it was thus even placed above the judiciary. Although four years have passed since then, it has still not processed all the applications, thus dragging out the damage to those affected for years. Even the specially appointed administrative courts, to which the latter turn in the event that their request is rejected by the commission, reject over 90 % of the applications, thus giving the government’s policy a legal framework.

During its 19-year rule, the AKP has increasingly established precarious employment and employment through subcontractors. The state of emergency and the KHK regime2 have further worsened working conditions for workers. Especially during the state of emergency and the Corona pandemic, the number of “labor murders”3 skyrocketed, and new strike bans were added to those already in place. President Erdoğan said, “We are imposing a state of emergency so that our economy can operate in peace.” In places prone to strikes, “we make use of the state of emergency and intervene immediately.” These words prove that the state of emergency was not imposed against the coup attempt, but to protect the interests of capital and further curtail the rights of workers. During the AKP’s rule, 17 strikes were banned, 7 during the state of emergency, under the pretext of only “postponing” them.

Attacks by the Regime Intensify

Even though the state of emergency has been lifted, in practice it still continues. Freedom of expression applies only to the government; beyond that, we are ruled by a regime that assumes the right to insult and threaten in any way. The constitution is ignored, and laws are applied or not at whim. With the statement “This decision does not bind us”, international treaties and agreements already signed, as well as court rulings at hand, are declared invalid. The one-man regime, which could also be described as a country-specific type of fascism, is no longer capable of governing. As the crisis continues to worsen due to the government’s inability to govern, the regime’s attacks against workers, opposition members and women grow stronger.

Politically opportune personnel were appointed in place of the dismissed civil service employees. For new hires, verification of loyalty to the regime was codified in law. For civil servants, a security check and a query of the register were ordered. With this unlawful procedure, people are not treated according to objective criteria, but are labeled on a whim and without legal basis. A personal interview was introduced as a prerequisite for new hires. This created an additional hurdle for people who are not close to the regime to be hired in the civil service. This unequal treatment in hiring, promotion and dismissal has effectively abrogated the right to work of millions of citizens. The newly created regulations and laws, as well as the practices applied, further reinforce the unequal treatment. In addition, the authority to issue disciplinary instructions has been transferred from the heads of the authorities to the president and chairman of the AKP.

We are going through a period in Turkey where the situation of trade union rights and freedoms is deteriorating year by year. Where the right to work is dependent on the government, fundamental rights such as the right to freedom of expression and the right to assemble and demonstrate are being abrogated. By abrogating the right to work, the government is also nullifying other fundamental rights. This is why the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) also listed Turkey as one of the ten worst-ranked countries in its Global Rights Index report.

The AKP government has instrumentalized social dialogue from the very beginning, holding a series of social dialogue meetings, but in the end only delivering monologues to suit its own political agenda. It has curtailed union rights and freedoms a little more each day, building up confederations and unions close to it, deepening rifts between unions and thereby disrupting labor peace. For example, while KESK members and officials are subjected to repression for being absolutely critical of the government, a confederation known to be loyal to the government is openly supported. The same can be observed at rallies and demonstrations that we as KESK want to organize. Members of unions belonging to the KESK are threatened with dismissal by their superiors, forcing them to resign. In addition, disciplinary proceedings are being initiated against the officials of KESK and its affiliated unions, and there has been a sharp increase in arrests and detentions. The practice of punitive transfers, already used in the 1990s, is once again being used as a means of repression. If we look at the cases of punitive transfers, we can see that the transfer is often justified by the exercise of trade union rights. In this way, the country is governed not on the basis of the constitution, but through enactments, decrees and unlawful orders.

In order to be able to exert influence as a trade union and to build up effective organization and work, we need free scope for negotiation. However, there are serious problems with this due to the valid sections 4688 of the Collective Bargaining Act for public sector employee unions and section 135 of the Employee Representation Agreement due to serious violations of the law. There is no free collective bargaining in this completely anti-democratic system. As a result, public employees suffer losses not only from the restriction of their right to freely exercise their profession, but also from the loss of material entitlements. Meaningful collective bargaining already fails because of structural problems, such as the lack of the right to strike. In addition, the officials who are supposed to represent the KESK in collective bargaining are not recognized, on the unlawful grounds that they are dismissed from their jobs because of the decree. Moreover, the rallies and demonstrations that we want to make during the collective bargaining are also prevented. All the dismissals and the subsequent interventions against our union work are systematic, politically motivated attacks on our federation and the unions that belong to us.

Rights Violations against the Members and Officials of our Confederation

We would like to briefly summarize the following violations of law against the members and officials of our confederation and our affiliated unions: punitive transfer, change of assignment or location against one’s own will, suspension of promotion, criminal trial and investigation, withholding of pay or salary, suspension, administrative proceedings, warning, mobbing, preferential treatment of unions loyal to the regime, obstruction of the distribution of union materials such as brochures, leaflets, calendars, etc., prevention of rallies and demonstrations, obstruction of the right to further education, arrest, detention, trials for allegedly violating the Law on Assembly, for insulting the President or the Prime Minister, or for posts on social media, violation of freedom of expression, attacks at rallies, injured KESK members, discrediting, defaming, and exposing the KESK, its affiliated unions, and their officials.

In addition, many of our members have had to flee and are now living as refugees far from their country. In the last four years, hundreds of our friends have been temporarily imprisoned, and currently 27 of them are still in prison.

AKP Ensures Perpetuation of Patriarchal Capitalist System

The AKP government has fundamentally changed the traditional employment relationship. Temporary, flexible, precarious and performance-based employment has become the norm. At the same time, rights that had been fought for have been curtailed. In order to ensure the greatest possible profit for capital, public resources were gradually opened up to the market. The aim was to break up the unions in which workers and employees were organized, using the state’s monopoly on the use of force to make them incapable of acting, in order to protect the development of a lawless, authoritarian regime and to increase the influence of unions loyal to the regime.

One of the fundamental characteristics of the AKP regime is to use any kind of crisis to spread its Islamist ideology throughout society and ensure the continuation of the patriarchal capitalist system. While on the one hand the spread of flexible, precarious employment establishes the exploitation of women, on the other hand measures such as cuts in social security and restrictions on the right to maintenance lead to a deepening of injustice in society. The confessionalization of public life pursued by the AKP negatively affects the lives of women in particular. Administrative pressure, violence and bullying against women in the workplace are on the rise. In our opinion, the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention after an overnight decision by the president, bypassing parliament, openly and clearly shows that fascism in Turkey is directed primarily against women. The aim is to legitimize violence against women, to exclude women from public life and to create the model of an obedient, non-organized woman. The image of cooperation between employers’ organizations and trade unions loyal to the regime is reminiscent of the cooperation during the fascist era and has set in motion a mechanism that rolls back the rights won by workers in favor of capital. Workplaces are seeing an increase in bullying and industrial accidents. Taking advantage of the state of emergency and the pandemic, a merit system is established; the establishment of permanent home offices, the worsening of the economic crisis and the constantly breaking new records of unemployment lead to an increase in the number of suicides.

Dignified Life through Organizing, Struggle and Solidarity

The Covid 19 pandemic management has had a very unfavorable impact on the state of the public service and on the working conditions of employees, especially in the areas of health, education and public transport. Because of this mismanagement, hundreds of public service workers lost their lives. The criticisms that we as KESK made against the management of the pandemic, our protests and events were either not allowed or intervened, even though these rights are guaranteed to us by both the relevant national legislation and ILO conventions4 (especially 98 and 135).

Through the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the pandemic has demonstrated in a very striking way how the marketization and abolition of public services, especially in health and education, the curtailment of social rights, the fascistoid repression of organizing, precarization and black labor destroy a society, while on the other hand capital and wealth flourish. The pandemic has shown that the majority of the world’s population is left without any social security or labor protection when livelihoods are cut off.

The only way for working people to achieve an income sufficient for a decent life and employment security is through unionization, struggle and solidarity independent of the state and capital. The events during the pandemic have once again shown the world the dangerous results of forcing people to work under modern slavery conditions through tariff evasion and the establishment of flexible and precarious working conditions. And at the same time, this also leads to the fact that capitalism – intensified especially in the last ten years – breaks up organizations and curtails the rights and freedoms of trade unions, as well as promoting the establishment of trade unions that are loyal to the system. Therefore, only a new social order in which labor is liberated can save us. Through organized struggle we can achieve this.


This article was first published in the September/October 2021 edition of the Kurdistan Report.


1KESK: Abbreviation for “Kamuoyu Emekçiler Sendikalar Konfederasyonu” (Confederation of Public Sector Workers), a federation of trade unions organized in the public sector in Turkey. The KESK is a member of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

2KHK regime: Under the Turkish constitution, the president can rule under certain conditions by issuing decrees, which then take precedence over existing laws. After the coup attempt on July 15, 2016, decrees were issued, among other things, to ensure that only people loyal to the regime were employed in the civil service, police and military. Employees and civil servants suspected of being critical of the regime were dismissed overnight without financial compensation or the right to appeal. More than 130,000 people were affected by this wave of purges.

3“Iş cinayetler” (“labor murders”) is a term for fatal occupational accidents. Murders are referred to here because they are due to non-existent safety and protection measures at the workplace. Because workplace safety is the responsibility of the employer, the death of any worker due to lack of safety and protective measures is attributable to him. Since it can be assumed that the employers deliberately withhold the measures from the workers for reasons of profit maximization, murder is spoken of at this point.

4The ILO (International Labor Organization) is a specialized agency of the United Nations charged with promoting social justice and human and labor rights. This includes the fight against human trafficking.