Economic crisis and attacks on labour conditions in Turkey – link workers’ industrial and political struggles!

Forced to resign - former Turkish Finance Minister, Dr. Berat Albayrak (Photo: Creative Commons)

Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the Turkish economy was on the brink of collapse as the country was grappling with currency depreciation and high inflation rates since the 2018 economic crisis. The living standards for the majority have rapidly deteriorated ever since. Turkey’s in-work poverty rate is now one of the highest amongst the European countries.

According to an official 2019 survey produced by the government, 17 million people in Turkey live below the poverty line.  In 2019, the inequality between the richest 20 percent and the poorest 20 percent has increased by 8.3 times.

The problems facing the working-class and young people have now been multiplied during the pandemic. More than two million workers are forced to take unpaid leave, earning less than half of the national minimum wage. The national minimum wage in Turkey is not even enough to cover monthly food shopping, let alone paying the rents, bills, and other expenses. Hence more than 10 million workers are currently being paid poverty wages.

The crisis of Turkish capitalism

The mismanagement of the Turkish economy has led to splits within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The fact that the two of the leading figures of the party formed their own parties last year, including the former prime minister, demonstrates the fear of some sections of the AKP that the party no longer reliable represents the interests of the capitalist class.

The abrupt resignation of the finance minister Berat Albayrak – President Erdogan’s son-in-law – last November, further highlights these divisions. Albayrak was replaced by a government official who was critical of Albayrak’s management of the economy. The first act of the new finance minister was to boost the investors’ confidence in the Turkish economy by raising the interest rates to 17%. This was a policy that Erdogan was against for a long period of time, but he had to change his position because of the extent of the economic crisis.

In the second quarter of 2020, the Turkish economy witnessed a 10% contraction in the economy. There was a short recovery in the third and fourth quarters as the economy reopened. But this was not a real recovery. Public debt has increased by 41 percent over a year, and with the depletion of foreign currency reserves, the Turkish economy is now in a dire financial strait. At root, the crisis of the Turkish economy stems from the crisis of global capitalism.

Despite the attempts of the government to prettify the economic situation by playing with numbers, working-class people can clearly see that the official inflation and unemployment rates do not reflect the truth. Although the official inflation rate is 13 percent, the real inflation rate is predicted to be over 30 percent. More and more people are plunging into poverty as a result of the capitalist crisis.

The unemployment level, in reality, is over 26%. Youth unemployment stands at 25%. A report produced by a left trade union confederation, Revolutionary Workers Unions Confederation (DISK), shows that unemployment is approaching 10 million. Official government reports say unemployment is much lower, as they do not include the millions of people who have stopped searching for jobs.

Only socialism offers a way out of this crisis caused by the capitalist system. Nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under democratic working class control and management, as a step towards a socialist planned economy, will transform the living standards of the masses.

Code 29 – a tool for the bosses

At the start of the pandemic, the AKP government introduced a ‘ban on dismissals’ as they announced that no one will lose their jobs during the pandemic. This was hailed by the capitalist media. This so-called ‘ban on dismissals’ came with strings attached, including attacks on workers’ rights.

The reality is that bosses are using code 29 of the employment law to fire workers during the pandemic. This law is mainly aimed against unionised workers. Code 29 allows the bosses to dismiss a worker, with no trial, after accusing them of behaving inappropriately. Those workers who lose their jobs as a result of code 29 are denied unemployment benefits, they cannot claim redundancy pay and they are blacklisted.

More bosses are using code 29 to undermine workers’ rights and throwing workers on the scrap heap with no benefits. But workers are also fighting back.

In Corum, over ninety metal workers who are members of the United Metal Workers Union – which is affiliated to DISK – were made redundant as the factory management accused unionised workers of behaving inappropriately. These metal workers have been organising militant protests since early December, demanding the reinstatement of workers who lost their jobs, the right to join a union and the right to collective bargaining.

Similarly, subcontracted postal workers unionised in a small, independent union called PTT-SEN were fired by the national postal service, as the management used code 29 as a tool to attack workers’ rights. The reality is that postal workers are being victimised because of union activity. Postal workers have been organising protests for over 50 days now.

These are an indication of the fighting mood which exists amongst some sections of the working class. These strikes have the potential to boost the confidence of the rest of the labour movement to organise coordinated action against the bosses.

During his presidency, Erdogan made several retreats when he came face to face with most militant sections of the working class. Recently, Erdogan’s party were forced to do a U-turn over their plan to scrap redundancy pay after several protests and walkouts were organised by unionised workers.

It is also clear that union bureaucracy will do all they can to act as a brake on workers who want to take militant actions, as we saw in the recent dispute between the Republican People’s Party (CHP) controlled Kadikoy council in Istanbul and a union affiliated to DISK. On the third day of strike action, the union leaders agreed on a deal behind closed doors without consulting the strikers.  The need to build democratic and combative organisations of the working class is an urgent task.

The 1963 Kavel strike

Certain parallels can be drawn between the workers’ struggles of 1960s and the current struggles of the organised working class. In particular, the magnificent Kavel Strike of 1963 is the best example of how workers can force capitalist governments to retreat.

The 1961 constitution – which was written after the military coup that overthrew a right-wing populist leader, Adnan Menderes – promised to make progressive reforms. Amongst those reforms were the recognition of the right to strike and the right to collective bargaining. However, no legal changes were made to enforce these rights. Strikes were still outlawed in Turkey.

Following a dispute with the management over working hours and distribution of annual bonuses, workers were pressurised to leave the union and four reps were fired. This prompted a strike at the factory, and 173 workers downed their tools and occupied the factory for five days. During the strike, thousands of workers from other factories offered support by visiting the picket line and raising funds to support the workers. The strike ended with victory for workers. Necessary legal changes were made that enforced the right to strike. This marked a turning point in the history of working class struggle in Turkey.  The Kavel strike was followed by numerous militant strikes and protests.

The determined actions organised by metal workers, postal workers and other workers who are fighting back against the attacks of the bosses resemble the militant strike organised by Kavel workers in 1963.

That era in the history of working class in Turkey also witnessed the culmination of the student movement as more students were drawing the conclusion that socialism was necessary to transform the living standards of the working-class people and peasantry. Unfortunately, the influence of Stalinist and Maoist ideas on the Turkish left meant that these students found themselves initiating guerrilla warfare rather than building a mass working-class struggle to get rid of capitalism.

Today, the protests organised by Bogazici University students and staff since January 2021 against the appointment of a government loyalist as rector, have the potential to trigger a much bigger social explosion in the rest of the country, given the dire situation facing working-class people in Turkey. This is Erdogan’s biggest fear. But by appointing loyalists as university rectors around the country, Erdogan seeks to increase his grip on every single state institution. He appointed government trustees to pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) controlled councils, as well.

The need for a political vehicle for workers, young people and oppressed

Meanwhile, the vicious state repression against Kurdish people living in Turkey continues. There are even talks of shutting down the HDP. Torture, anti-democratic moves, and other kinds of attacks against Kurdish people are happening daily. The offices of the HDP are being raided by the Turkish police. But despite the heavy repression, the HDP remains the third-largest party in the Turkish parliament.

Especially since the imprisonment of Selehattin Demirtas, former leader of the HDP, the leadership of the HDP has taken a defensive approach and focuses mainly on human rights and democracy issues. It is true that there is, effectively, a siege on the HDP. But if the HDP adopts a socialist programme and calls for a conference of trade unions and other socialist groups to form a new mass workers party, this would change the political situation in Turkey. It is crucial that the struggle for democratic rights is linked to the struggle for socialism.

Given the accumulation of anger amongst the working class and middle-class people, the question of working-class political representation is looming in Turkey. No organisation on the left is putting forward a strategy to resolve this issue. A series of electoral defeats and attacks on democratic rights led to demoralisation amongst some layers. Almost all Trotskyist organisations in Turkey are solely focusing on industrial battles without linking it to the need for a new mass workers’ party, which will involve trade unionists, socialists, young people, and Kurdish people fighting for their national rights.  Even a conference called by trade unions to discuss the strategy at this stage will have an electrifying effect and boost the confidence of workers fighting the bosses and Erdogan’s government.

The tested ideas and methods of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) have the potential to attract the most politically and class-conscious advanced sections of the working class and youth in Turkey to begin the process of forming the embryo of a Marxist, revolutionary organisation.

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March 2021