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Turkey pushes ahead with plans for ‘world’s biggest airport’ despite arrests of workers protesting ‘prison’ conditions

‘The workers are working under military oppression,’ says one union leader

Borzou Daragahi
Thursday 20 September 2018 18:40 BST
Turkey pushes ahead with plans for ‘world’s biggest airport’ despite arrests of workers protesting ‘prison’ conditions

Turkish authorities are moving forward with plans to open what has been described as the world’s biggest airport late next month – after quelling days of labour unrest that led to at least 400 detentions.

But labour leaders in Turkey say hard feelings and anger among the tens of thousands of workers building Istanbul’s massive new airport persist, and few of the conditions that led to the outbreak of anger among rank-and-file workers have been resolved. A heavy presence of security forces at the airport has added to frustrations.

“The construction site is a kind of prison now,” Ozgur Karabulut, president of Turkey’s Progressive Union of Construction Workers, told The Independent in an interview. “Since Monday the workers have started to work again, but they are frustrated. The gendarmerie and police are watching over them.”

The airport unrest shined a light on Turkey’s labour conditions. Up until a recent financial crisis, the country has been undergoing a 15-year development boom. But advocates say construction workers are often badly treated and poorly paid by powerful, politically connected development giants and subcontractors, even if they are fairly well organised.

“If you ask me whether there’s oppression of workers in Turkey the answer is yes,” Sharan Burrow, Brussels-based secretary general of the International Trade Union Confederation, said. “But are Turkish workers afraid to organise? No. Where the unions organised workers they are very effective.”

The first phase of Istanbul’s new airport, which has yet to be named, is set to launch 29 October, the 95th anniversary of the Turkish republic. Priced at over $30bn (£23bn) it is the signature development project of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s ambitious president. Although many experts agree is a necessary expansion of Istanbul’s aviation capacity.

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Some 36,000 workers are employed at the airport site beyond the northwestern outskirts of the European side of Istanbul. According to Mr Karabulut, some two-thirds hail from outside of the city, many from deep within the Turkey’s Anatolian heartland.

Far from their families, crammed into dormitories, and dependent on shuttle buses to get back and forth between their worksite and living quarters, many have grown frustrated over the pace of the work and the conditions. At least 38 workers have died since construction began, said labour organisers.

“It’s horrific,” said Ms Burrow. “You’re talking about a death a month for the life of the project.”

Turkish officials say the death toll could include those who may suffered heart attacks or other conditions while at the site.

Labour organisers say there have been other outbreaks of discontent at the airport site that managers defused. The latest troubles began last Friday when workers enraged over a lack of shuttle bus to ferry them back away got stuck in heavy rain storm.

“After the end of our shift we went to the shuttle buses,” an anonymous labourer told the DW, the German news outlet. “It was pouring, we got very wet. When a single bus arrived at some point, everyone tried to get in there. When this situation repeated itself on Friday, the uprising began.”

Protests escalated, fusing with other concerns about poor food, insects in sleeping quarters, and subcontractors delaying salaries.

“It started spontaneously, but then it came under the control as an organised labour action,” said Mr Karabulut, who himself visited the site and learned from lawyers that there is a warrant out for his arrest.

Gendarmerie stormed the site on Saturday, firing tear gas and water cannons, according to video footage from workers. Police rounded up hundreds of workers. At least 24 have been formally charged and are being held in the prison in Silivri.

Ironically, one union official quipped, there was no shortage of shuttle buses when the gendarmerie hustled the protesting workers away.

The airport operator has said that its CEO had met labour leaders and was attempting address the complaints of workers. But labour officials said most of the egregious abuses were committed by subcontractors. Equal treatment for those directly employed by the airport and those working for subcontractors is among the list of demands by the workers, along with releasing their colleagues from jail and lifting the state of siege at the work site.

“There’s an interrogation room at the site,” said Ms Burrow. “The workers are working under military oppression”.

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