Turkey: The Wild Man At The Bosporus – Sick Democracy, Persecuted Trade Unions

July 27,  2017

Susanne Wixforth*

The failed assault on the Turkish parliament took place a year ago, on 16 July 2016 at 2 a.m. on a day with no legislative session. It served as the reason for the proclamation of the state of emergency. Since then, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been governing Turkey by means of decrees. About 50,000 have been arrested, nearly 135,000 public service employees have been suspended or sacked, losing not only their jobs and salary but also any right to social benefits. Judicial review of these decisions is unavailable. Those affected face an effective employment ban and are left with nothing from one day to the next.

Before the start of the mass arrests more than 200,000 people were in jail. Therefore, about 35,000, who were put into prison before the coup attempt, were released in order to make space for alleged enemies of the government/state. At the same time, the government plans the construction of approximately 100 new prisons to increase capacity for some 100,000 additional prisoners. Ten broadcasting stations were closed, 370 journalists put into jail, 2000 employees sacked. 85% of the media landscape is owned or controlled by Erdogan. Only 5% of the media can be deemed to be independent. Based on the “denaturalisation decree”, persons accused of terroristic activities can lose their Turkish citizenship by the public prosecutor´s ordinance. Trade unionists, opposition members of parliament are confronted with travel bans; judges ruling against the governmental mainstream are suspended, arrested or replaced.

In conclusion, the coup attempt seems to be a happy coincidence in Erdogan’s favour: It serves as justification for the abrogation of legislative and judicial power, whereas executive power rules with no restraints. The state of emergency offers the government the legal basis for the arrest of all those who are reportedly close to the Gülen movement or the Kurdish PKK, as well as the clearing out from all offices of Kurdish politicians (including 64 elected mayors in Kurdish southeast regions, replaced by Turkish governors). Moreover, it serves to criminalise any critic (members of opposition parties, trade unions, NGOs, journalists, scientists). This state of affairs takes its toll. Many are intimidated and prefer to remain silent. A big part of liberal progressive civil society ‘escapes into Biedermeier’ like retirement in order to avoid jail and torture. The policy in play seems to target the foundation of a neo-Ottoman state.

Measures Of The European Union And The Council Of Europe

Despite the evidence of moves towards an authoritarian state, the European Union is continuing with Turkey’s accession process. In the European Council, 27 EU member states voted in favour with one, Austria, against. The European Commission, mandated by the EU for the negotiations, hibernated the formal proceedings as well as visa liberalization given the state of emergency.

At the same time, the European Court of Human Rights showed polite reservations. In March 2017, it rejected the complaint of a Turkish labour law judge against her lay-off after the coup attempt, pointing to a newly established Commission in Ankara. Its responsibility is to monitor the lawfulness of layoffs during the state of emergency on application from those concerned. This so-called “Commission of the 7” was enacted by Erdogan. The president and his ministers nominate its members. Based on the establishment of this institution the Court rejects all directly addressed complaints of employees referring to the violation of the Convention of Human Rights. First, the successive national stages of appeal have to be exploited. However, this implies any appeal goes to a Commission of 7, which has not yet been appointed, then again from the administrative court to the state council and finally to the constitutional court. Hence, the suspended people enjoy no legal protection, including from the EHRC.

Situation Of The Trade Unions

Turkey has six trade union confederations. The pro-government HAK-İŞ and the allegedly neutral TÜRK-İŞ are members of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). So are the KESK, the Confederation of Public Employees, whose general secretary Lami Özgen has recently been sentenced to prison for several years for supposed terrorist activities, and the left-wing DISK. The confederations Memur Sen and Kamu Sen are not members of the ETUC. Memur Sen is considered to be the extended arm of the AKP. Kamu Sen is close to the nationalistic party MHP.

The four Turkish trade union confederations within the ETUC seem to be unified as to fundamental questions concerning the Turkish policy: They jointly condemn the failed coup attempt and demand a fair trial and the re-employment of the wrongfully suspended employees. The dividing lines quickly come to the surface when it comes to the question whether the regional congress of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) should be held in Istanbul. While HAK-İŞ and TÜRK-İŞ are in favour, KESK and DISK reject the proposal. Due to pressure by the Turkish ministry of interior affairs, DISK gave up its opposition. Erdogan will interpret the staging of the ILO congress as an implicit political recognition.

During all this, representatives of KESK and DISK are increasingly subject to political persecution. They are sometimes imprisoned, sometimes arrested for a few days for no stated reason and then released. They are often denied visits and access to lawyers. HAK-İŞ and TÜRK-İŞ scarcely suffer from such repression. Meanwhile, the four confederations organised in the ETUC represent a decreasing number of Turkish employees. By contrast, Memur Sen tripled its members to 1 million with the help of the AKP party. Kamu Sen became the second biggest confederation with 400.000 members.

This raises increasingly the question what political stance democratically organised European trade union confederations should adopt with respect to the six Turkish trade union confederations. How critical should they be of the political parties, especially Erdogan’s AKP? Traditionally, trade unions have close relations to political parties so as to gain political influence and often hold a seat in parliament. Which of the Turkish trade union confederations is politically independent enough to represent Turkish employees in international trade union confederations such as the ETUC and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)? Where should one draw the dividing line between being too close to the government – and too ineffective? Lately, Kamu Sen applied for ETUC membership. ETUC is considering observer status in its favour.

How Can The Support Of The Trade Unions Look Like?

Representatives of trade unions and Turkish civil society emphasise that the most important source of support for their concerns is international pressure and constant international scrutiny of the Turkish regime and its actions.

ETUC, ITUC, the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) and its trade union members have pronounced four demands:

  1. Termination of the state of emergency and resumption of the peace process.
  2. Fair and speedy trials for the suspended persons.
  3. Immediate release of unlawfully imprisoned persons.
  4. Re-employment of unlawfully suspended persons and restoration of their social status.

In addition, concrete actions are being undertaken in Turkey: Trade unionists from Germany and other European countries regularly join trial observer missions to show support and demand fairness in trials. Moreover, they collect donations for the arrested and released Turkish colleagues. The Turkish equivalent to the German Education and Science Union (GEW), Eğitim Sen, had already suffered prosecution and criminalization before the failed coup attempt. GEW therefore supports teachers and trade unionists who fled to Germany.

These measures are like drops in the ocean. It is obvious that the EU and its member States have to take a clear stance against an autocratic regime such as Turks. A gradual slide towards dictatorship can only be delegitimised in its very early phase. The Turkish government is taking the EU’s tortuous manoeuvring so far as acceptance and tolerance of the repression of Turkish civil society. Once the dictatorship is firmly in the saddle, international solidarity and opposition will be way more difficult. 

*Susanne Wixforth, German Trade Union Confederation (DGB); Manfred Brinkmann, Trade Union for Education and Science (GEW).




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