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ITUC's Annual Survey of Violations of Trade UNION Rights

Public sector UNIONs continued to be a target of government interference. Individual members faced detention, fines and disciplinary action. In the private sector workers suffered brutal anti-UNION harassment, including dismissals, while strikers faced police violence and arrest. There has been virtually no progress on bringing the law into line with international labour standards.

Trade UNION rights in law

Still, very little real progress has been made in bringing the country’s legislation on workers’ and trade UNION rights into line with international standards. The majority of changes are in draft form only, in contrast to other areas of law that have been changed with a view to Turkey’s possible accession to the European UNION.

Restrictions on Freedom of Association: The law recognises freedom of association for nationals and foreign workers alike and the right to form a trade UNION, but there are limitations.

Sections 3(a) and 15 of Act No. 4688, the Public Employees’ Trade UNIONs Act (PETU), deny several categories of public servants the right to organise. Section 3(a) only admits those who are permanently employed and have finished their trial periods. Section 15 lists a number of employees (such as lawyers, civilian civil servants at the Ministry of National Defence and the Turkish Armed Forces, employees at penal institutions, special security personnel, public employees “in positions of trust”, presidents of universities and directors of higher schools etc.) who are prohibited from joining trade UNIONs. This affects more than 450,000 public employees.

In April 2007 Act No.5620 was adopted amending section 3(a) of the Public Employees Trade UNIONs Act with the effect that personnel working under fixed-term contract are now entitled to join public employees UNIONs. This broadens the range of public employees able to join a UNION but in no way brings Turkish law into conformity with Convention 87 in terms of the right of workers without distinction whatsoever to form and join the organisations of their choosing.

In May 2007 Act No. n5672 was adopted amending section 14(4) of the Trade UNION Act by lifting the requirement of 10 years employment in order to enjoy eligibility for trade UNION office.

Bill No. 2821 (the Trade UNIONs Act) still contains various detailed restrictions on the right to strike. Bill no. 2822 (the Collective Agreements, Strike and Lockout Act) abolishes the obligation for workers who want to join a UNION to obtain a notary certificate, but not for those who want to resign from it. They have to pay for this service. Both bills will replace the existing legislation after having been approved by the Turkish parliament. Until this happens, candidates for UNION office still need to have ten years seniority and must be a Turkish citizen. No concrete progress was made in 2007 concerning the adoption of these new laws but the government has reported to the ILO (January 2008) that the adoption of new legislation was scheduled for the first quarter of 2008. Unless dramatic changes are made to the existing drafts, even when the bills come into force, Turkey’s relevant legislation will still be in breach of ILO Conventions 87 and 98.

Activities limited: UNIONs must obtain official permission to organise meetings or rallies, and must allow the police to attend their events and record the proceedings. Associations still cannot use languages other than Turkish in their official activities. The PETU also contains detailed provisions regarding the activities and functioning of trade UNIONs, in breach of the principles of the right to organise.

If a UNION seriously contravenes the laws governing its activities, it can be forced to suspend its activities or enter into liquidation on the order of a labour tribunal.

Restrictions on collective bargaining: To be recognised as a bargaining agent, a UNION must represent at least 50 per cent plus one of the workers within a factory, and 10 per cent of the workers within the relevant sector nationwide. Only one UNION per enterprise, i.e. the largest one, is authorised to conduct collective bargaining. The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association’s (CFA) recommendations that Act No. 2822 be amended to bring it in line with basic principles covering collective bargaining and the right to strike have been followed in the new Bill, but this has yet to be enacted.

As far as the public sector is concerned, the PETU does not mention the concept of collective bargaining. Instead, it provides for what is called “collective consultative talks”. The PETU defines in detail what these can cover, but the list is restricted to financial issues, covering salaries and other allowances, compensation and bonuses. This falls far short of the definition of collective bargaining contained in ILO Convention 98, and in practice leaves the power of decision making with the government.

Serious limitations on the right to strike: There is still no formally recognised right to strike for the public sector, despite a revision of the PETU in 2005. The ILO has repeatedly stressed that sections 29 and 30 of Act No. 2822, concerning the right to strike, are incompatible with the Convention. The ILO has recalled that restrictions on the right to strike in the public service hinge solely on the functions carried out by the public employees concerned. These restrictions should therefore be limited to public servants who exercise authority in the name of the state and those working in essential services in the strict sense of the term.

Solidarity strikes, general strikes, go-slows and workplace occupations continue to be banned. Severe penalties, including imprisonment, are possible for participation in strikes. Any strike that is not called by a trade UNION executive body is banned. Strikes over the non-observance of collective labour agreements are forbidden.

Where strikes are allowed, there is an excessively long waiting period (nearly three months) from the start of negotiations to the date when a strike can be held, and the UNION must follow specific steps. Collective bargaining must take place first. If there is a decision to go ahead with strike action, the employer must be given at least one week’s notice. Employers are allowed to lock striking workers out, but not to hire strike-breakers or use administrative staff to do the jobs of the strikers. They may not dismiss workers who encourage or take part in legal strikes.

It is prohibited to prevent raw materials entering a factory or finished products leaving it, and to prevent non-UNION members from working. Only four or five strikers may form a picket line at the factory gates, and they may not set up a tent or any kind of shelter, nor hang up banners that say anything other than, “There is a strike at this workplace”.

Should Bill No. 2821 be adopted, then several of these restrictions will be lifted; even so, other restrictions will remain in place.

Limited protection against anti-UNION discrimination: The minimum number of employees in a workplace needed for job security legislation to apply is 30. As a result of subcontracting and fixed term contracts, about 95 per cent of workplaces have fewer than 30 employees.

The fines that can be imposed on employers who do not respect trade UNION rights, are too small to be dissuasive. However, the Civil Code has recently been amended in order to change this. As the ruling party has an absolute majority in the Turkish parliament passing and enacting the new Civil Code should be a formality. The fact that this still hasn’t happened demonstrates that protection against anti-UNION discrimination is still not a priority in Turkey.

Trade UNION rights in practice and Violations in 2007

Full trade UNION rights not yet established: The November 2007 edition of th
e European Commission’s Progress Report on Turkey’s accession to the European UNION found that the establishment of full trade UNION rights remained problematic. The percentage of the labour force covered by collective agreements still remains extremely low and is even further decreasing, owing to the threshold for collective bargaining set by the law. Of the 11 million workers with labour contracts, less than one million were covered by collective agreements.

Interference in UNION affairs: The public sector federation KESK and its affiliates Kültür-Sanat Sen, Haber-Sen, ESM and SES have suffered interference in their statutes by the public authorities. The Ministry of Labour and Social Security considered the use in the four UNIONs’ statutes of terms like collective bargaining, collective dispute or the right to strike to be violations of The Public Employees’ Trade UNIONs Law Nr. 4688 (PETU).

Bargaining obstructed: UNIONs report that the government manipulates membership figures or claims there are irregularities in the figures in order to deny them the right to collective bargaining, and that UNION members are being put under pressure to resign from the UNION. Obstruction by employers is not duly punished, even when a labour court rules in favour of a UNION. The government tends to not treat the UNIONs as fully-fledged social partners, but rather as some kind of consultancy bodies.

Pressure to leave the UNION: Many workers face discrimination because of their trade UNION membership such as being transferred to other workplaces, often in other cities, or other discriminatory measures and pressure on workers to leave the UNION, continued to be a problem.

Dismissals: Private sector employers tend to ignore the law and frequently dismiss workers for their UNION activities in order to weaken or destroy UNIONs, as many of the cases listed below illustrate.

In January, the Uno-Ummas Unlu Mamüller Sanayi Ve Ticaret A.S. company management started to pressure workers to quit the TÜRK-IS and IUF-affiliated Tobacco, Drink, Food and Allied Workers’ UNION of Turkey (TEKGIDA-Is). UNION members Hasan Acarbay and Erkan Demirci were fired as a means of setting a dissuasive example.

On 9 January, the management of Delta Gida in Düzce fired 98 workers after they had joined TEKGIDA-Is. It explicitly stated that it would never take part in collective bargaining negotiations and that it wouldn’t hire UNIONised workers.

Also in January, the Kaynak Sulari Ve Turizm A.S. company management in Kirkpinar-Sapanca started to pressure its workers to resign from TEKGIDA-Is. It dismissed twelve UNION members to frighten off the other workers. UNION member Ender Karakoç was threatened with a knife.

Starting from January onwards, the KAREKSAN company management in Izmir fired 56 workers because they had joined TEKGIDA-Is. After a local court ruling, it started to reinstate them. Nonetheless, it divided the company into dozens of small “partner organisations” in order to wipe out the UNION.

On 15 February, 31 members of the TÜRK-Is-affiliated Motor Vehicle Workers’ UNION of Turkey (TÜMTIS) were fired by the Horoz Transportation and Logistics Co. The UNION started a campaign to get them reinstated. On 6 April, the company management sent thugs who attacked and injured TÜMTIS member Ihsan Sezer and Ankara Branch Inspection Committee member Erkan Aydogdu with knives. After four months of struggle and numerous acts of intimidation by the company management, the UNION gave up the struggle for the reinstatement of the workers. The lawsuit which they filed, however, was still pending at the time this Survey was written.

In March, two female members of the KESK-affiliated BES UNION were fired for distributing trade UNION leaflets which allegedly served “political and ideological aims”. After the UNION went to court, one of them was reinstated in September.

Also in March, the management of the Bag Yaglari company in Izmir fired 22 workers after TEKGIDA-Is had started recruiting members.

On 3 August, Yuksel Yalabiyik was dismissed by the Çam Carpet and Foreign Trade Ltd. Co in Usak. Since 2003, he had been a member of the Textile, Knitting and Clothing Industry Workers’ UNION of Turkey (TEKSIF), a TÜRK-Is affiliate. He had been fired for that reason and was denied a job at most of the other companies which he had been applying to since. After taking his case to court, it appeared that the Usak Textile Employers’ Association were circulating a blacklist of UNIONised workers which had his name on it. After continuing to fail to find a job which would enable him to take care of his wife and two children, Yuksel committed suicide on 16 November. He was 37.

On 27 August, 13 TÜMTIS members were dismissed by the Super Cargo Co in Bursa, Istanbul, after having been threatened by gunmen who were hired by the company management.

Early September, the owner of the DIMES Co, who is also a member of parliament for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), dismissed 16 workers who had started to recruit members for TEKGIDA-Is. Fourteen of them were fired at the DIMES plant in Izmir, two of them at the plant in Tokat.

On 28 September, the management of the Orteks Textile Products Ind. & Trade Co, based in the city of Nigde, reported to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security that the contracts of 106 workers had been terminated two days earlier. The workers weren’t told anything and just continued working. All of them were members of TEKSIF, which had just applied for collective bargaining status after having organised 121 of the company’s 205 workers. The Ministry did not grant TEKSIF its collective bargaining status, at which point the UNION went to court.

At the Yörsan Dairy Company plant in Susurluk-Balikesir, management systematically and brutally thwarted all attempts by the workers to join TEKGIDA-Is. Some workers were physically threatened, and in one case a worker was even taken by force to a remote house near a vineyard, where he was threatened with being shot in the foot if he didn’t resign from the UNION. When it became apparent that the intimidation tactics were missing their target, the company dismissed all 402 UNION members in December. Moreover, the Yörsün management also deemed it necessary to attack the UNION in two national newspapers, claiming that social peace at the Yörsün factories was being ruined by “some people’s negative activities”.

Arrests: On 13 August, nine TÜMTIS members were fired by the Akdeniz Selçuk Transportation Co in Izmir because of their UNION membership. Three days later, TÜMTIS Izmir branch leader Safer Kömürcü and one other UNION member were detained. The following day, the police violently arrested 11 other UNION members. Two of them had to be hospitalized afterwards, and TÜMTIS General Secretary Gürel Yilmaz and Mr. Kömürcü were beaten inside the police station when they went there to ask for information about their arrested colleagues.

On 20 November, six TÜMTIS branch executives were arrested after having organised demonstrations in front of the premises of Lider Cargo and the Gram Alimentary Co, following the dismissal of a number of their colleagues. The Education Secretary and President of the TÜMTIS Ankara branch, Nurettin Kiliçdogan, was arrested at the Ozbek Hotel in Istanbul, while he was attending the UNION’s Executive Committee; the others were arrested in Ankara, their names are Hüseyin Babiyigit, Halil Keten, Erkan Aydogan, Binali Güney, Atilla Yilmaz and Selahattin Demir.

Violent attacks, jail sentences and disciplinary measures against trade UNIONists: On 8 March, the Gaziantep-based Star Van Company’s management and its bodyguards attacked Fikret Uluç and Mustafa Öztürk of the TÜMTIS UNION with clubs and bats. The attackers were arrested but released two days afterwards.

On 26 November 2005, a peaceful teachers’ demonstration in Ankara was violently suppressed. Seventeen teachers were injured
and ten of them arrested. The public prosecutor brought a lawsuit against 11 Executive Committee members of a number of UNIONs which are all affiliated to KESK. They were all sentenced to one year and three months imprisonment and a fine of 407 YTL each. While the sentences of nine of them were suspended, the sentences for KESK President Ismail Hakki Tombul and former BTS President Fehmi Kutan were not. If these sentences were to be confirmed by the Turkish Higher Court of Appeal, both UNION leaders will be sent to prison.

On 6 April, Mrs. İlknur Ozcan Polat, of the Kirklareli branch of KESK-affiliated UNION of public employees in the health sector SES, was transferred after having already been subjected to ”disciplinary measures” by the Governor and the General Directorate of Health of Kirklareli. On 18 December, the same happened to SES Executive Committee members Yavuz Acar and Atilla Ergenekon.

UNION premises set on fire: On 4 March, Egitim Sen’s branch office in Sakarya was put on fire. The investigation showed this had been done intentionally.

Retirees’ UNION closed down: On 19 September, the ITUC wrote to the Turkish Prime Minister to protest the series of lawsuits against the DISK-affiliated Turkish Trade UNION of Retirees (Emekli-Sen), in spite of Ankara’s 17th Central Judicial Court having already rejected the case brought by the Turkish Interior Ministry. However, after the Ministry appealed, the Turkish Supreme Court ordered the closure of the UNION on the grounds that Article 51 of the Turkish Constitution does not allow for retirees to establish a UNION. This ruling runs counter of international legal standards, which prevail over Turkey’s own national legislation, as is stipulated in Article 90 of its own Constitution.