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UNION chairman sees difficult year ahead for labor in Turkey

Trade UNION leader accuses the government of not being interested in improving the conditions of the workers’ livelihood but was more interested in causing the expense of workmanship to fall. Süleyman Çelebi notes that the minimum wage was about half of where the poverty line was drawn.

What kind of year will 2010 be for labor UNIONs and workers? Not a very good one if Süleyman Çelebi, general board chairman of the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ UNIONs, or DİSK, is to be believed.

Currently, there are nearly 6 million people unemployed in Turkey R11; 1.4 million of whom go hungry and a further 1.17 million who are below the official poverty line, according to Çelebi’s New Year’s statement.

As an activist confederation, DİSK is supporting the work action by employees of Tekel, the former state-owned alcohol and tobacco monopoly, the fire department, SINTER, Kent AS and the Turkish Red Crescent.

Members of the confederation’s organizing office, along with officials from an affiliated UNION, Nakliyat-İş, are meanwhile in prison. These incarcerations have prompted DİSK to launch a series of sit-down actions in Taksim’s Gezi Park that will continue until the officials are freed, the confederation said.

Çelebi does not lack courage in his defense of labor-UNION rights and freedoms. The grey-haired UNION leader was even shot outside DİSK’s headquarters in Istanbul last October. Despite his injuries, he is as active as ever.

Minimum-wage increase insufficient

Although the government has announced a boost in the minimum wage, Çelebi believes the increase is so small that it will actually create a new group of poor people. At 5.2 percent on gross wages and 5.7 percent on net wages, the increase only amounts to one Turkish Lira per day. Put another way, it took 46 minutes of work to buy a loaf of bread before the increase and 44 minutes after the measures were announced. As the global economic crisis has increased unemployment in Turkey, food prices have also risen; onions, for instance, are 34 percent more expensive.

Çelebi accused the government of not being interested in improving workers’ conditions, but rather focused merely on reducing the cost of workers, adding that a minimum-wage salary only takes a worker about halfway to the poverty line. “It is a product of neo-liberal ideology that is not interested in human beings and the social dimension of the worker,” he said.

The UNION leader cites similar ideological considerations as the reason behind the recent deaths of 19 workers in a Bursa coal-mine explosion. UNIONs blame management for the deaths, pointing to an explosion in 2006 in which 17 mine workers were killed. More than 3,500 mineworkers have been killed in various accidents in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak alone.

Former Energy and Natural Resources Minister Hilmi Güler has suggested such explosions and deaths are a fact of life in the mining business.

Addressing these deaths, Çelebi and the UNIONs decry the impoverishment of workers while others make excessive profits. Mines are poorly ventilated, inspections are conducted only sporadically and facilities that should be closed often remain in operation, they say. Even if deficiencies are brought to the attention of mine owners, there are few mechanisms to ensure improvements are made. Because of all this, Çelebi said, “Accidents should be called murder.”

R16;Black Day’

The future of UNIONs in Turkey looks increasingly bleak; a recently passed law will no longer permit the organizations to retain the names of members who have retired or moved on to other employment. As such, the number of workers who are counted as members of labor UNIONs in Turkey will DROP from 3,230,000 to 750,000 on Jan. 17, a coming “Black Day” for UNIONs.

A new labor law is meanwhile being drafted that will reduce the number of members necessary to pursue collective bargaining and eliminate the need to have UNION membership notarized.

Although Labor and Social Security Minister Ömer Dinçer has offered to meet with labor UNIONs, this has not yet happened. Çelebi said the minister does not need to meet with DİSK to exchange views, but merely needs to keep the confederation informed while adhering to EU legislation and the norms established by the International Labor Organization.

According to Çelebi, the proposed statistical list cannot be published until the new Labor UNION Law is passed. Arguing that the reduced number of necessary members is not well-intentioned, he said everyone should insist on his or her name being included on the list.

Furthermore, he said, workers have been fired, with the Supreme Court of Appeals’ approval, from public-sector companies and organizations such as the Red Crescent because of their UNION membership. “If this can happen in the public sector, just think of what can happen in the private sector,” Çelebi said.

Political party closures

On the subject of closures, Çelebi said parties, UNIONs and associations should not be shut down if they have not resorted to violence as a guiding principle, referring to the recent closure of the Democratic Society Party, or DTP.

“In the Republican period, the DTP is the 25th party to be closed by a decision of the Constitutional Court; if one counts the times when there have been coups or proclamations of emergency measures, then it is the 35th party,” he said. “There are no universal principles in Turkey; the principles and laws of Sept. 12 [the military coup] are still in force. Due to the existence of these laws and the lack of democratization, closure decisions have taken on a political aspect.”

Çelebi holds the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and the opposition parties responsible for the closure of the DTP because no changes were made to the Political Parties Law, adding that the AKP was merely fined when it faced a similar closure case. On the subject of the DTP, the AKP merely expressed its respect for the law.

DİSK supports a revamping of the 1982 Constitution, arguing that such a document should be free, democratic and guarantee equality. Unfortunately, Çelebi said, the government only made hasty preparations for changes to the current Constitution following the July 2007 election.

According to Çelebi, constitutions cannot be made just for the people making them. Instead, they must include all of society and be participatory, pluralistic and transparent. Furthermore, the documents should be based on universal human rights and international agreements that guarantee the rights of individuals.

Importantly, such constitutions cannot simply guarantee democratic rights and freedoms but must secure economic and social rights as well, he said, adding, “The state has a constitutional responsibility to meet the basic economic and social needs of its citizenry.”

DİSK assembled a group of constitutional experts who drafted a report to create a framework for making necessary changes to the current Constitution, yet little success was achieved. Still, the confederation remains dedicated to challenging what it sees as government negligence.

According to DİSK, the government makes laws and decisions with impunity, such as increasing the price of electricity, fuel oil and special consumption taxes. At the same time, the confederation says, it has circumscribed rights and freedoms to the point that there are few opportunities to demonstrate, march or strike. Furthermore, there are few mechanisms available to inspect newly implemented measures to determin
e their adherence to code.

To rectify the situation, DİSK has called on all labor UNIONs to stand together so that Turkey can have a brighter 21st century.