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No more slow deaths: Maltepe University Hospital workers unite after mass firings

After every inevitable deadly disaster in Turkey, those fortunate enough to survive repeat an old, somber adage: “In other countries, people die by accident. In Turkey, people live by accident.”

Over the past year alone, it’s an aphorism that would well have passed many a worker’s lips, with 2014 being an especially deadly one for hundreds of workers in Soma, Ermenek and İstanbul, at the Torunlar project in Şişli district, as well as countless other places. And as if it were striving to overfulfill its quotas following last year’s “bumper” year, Death has already visited plenty of workers this annum, with at least six workers killed Jan. 10 alone. The reasons for such fatality rates are numerous, but chief among them are government policies that break the power of independent unions and the growth of the “Republic of Subcontractors” (Taşeron Cumhuriyeti), with work being increasingly handed out to laborers who are underpaid and overworked by employers who are subjected to few regulatory checks in their frenetic rush for profit.


Campaign for decent minimum wage

For many workers in Turkey, regulatory oversight and the opportunity to belong to a union are conspicuously absent on the path to the grave. But while the gross negligence that killed 301 miners in Soma in May 2014 may have grabbed worldwide headlines for the sudden, if not entirely predictable, loss of life, many other employers in Turkey are also killing their workers – just more slowly.

Maltepe University Hospital is a case in point. On Dec. 6, 2014, hospital administrators fired 94 workers – having previously given marching orders to four of their colleagues – after they started a unionization drive to improve difficult working conditions that had made it impossible to survive in İstanbul, Turkey’s most expensive city.

“Who can survive on 900 TL (330 euro) a month?” asked one worker, Ayhen İren.

İren, like many of his colleagues, was forced to take secondary jobs to help make ends meet after years working at the hospital as administrators offered only basic annual raises, few benefits and no transportation allowance.

Another, İnan Haspolat, looked to make ends meet by moonlighting as a taxi driver after his shift at the hospital; the hard reality of simple arithmetic meant that he was forced to subsist on only two hours of sleep a day.

“We came to the point of choking. With our last ounce of strength and our last breath, we decided to unionize,” said Şehriban Kaya. “For an honorable life and to meet our basic needs, we became union members.”

University administrators, predictably, took a dim view of the workers’ attempts to gain greater rights by joining DİSK’s health union, Dev Sağlık-İş, offering alternatively sticks (sporadic firings) and carrots (promises of an extra 200 liras for those that would renounce their membership) in an effort to stem the tide of unionization and convince them to work for a new subcontractor that would provide even worse working conditions while also padding the university hospital’s bottom line.

“When we met with the rector, he said straight up that he didn’t want any union activity and that he wouldn’t permit this,” said Erdoğan Demir, a senior official with Dev Sağlık-İş.

Proving that he was at least a man of his word, the rector elected for the nuclear option: firing close to 100 workers following the graveyard shift on Dec. 6. Those fired included a number of husband-wife teams who were suddenly left with no income. Others who went to collect severance after years of service made the vaguely Kafkaesque discovery that they had not been working – officially – at a hospital at all; in the interests of cutting down on insurance premiums, administrators had listed the hospital workers as office staff, given that the former costs more due to the more dangerous nature of the work.


Nurses and janitors are in picketline

Undeterred by the administrators’ purge, workers resisted, erecting a tent in the hospital’s garden, gaining the support of Maltepe residents, patients, the latter’s families, as well as doctors and nurses at the hospital.

The resistance – which recently celebrated its one-month anniversary – has continued amid song and solidarity despite a bitterly cold İstanbul winter.

The climatic conditions were not lost on university administrators. “We feel sorrow at how our employees are waiting outside in these difficult weather conditions,” they said in a statement.

The workers’ response was withering. “If they’re thinking of us this much, why did they fire us? If they’re that upset at our situation, they should do what’s necessary: Send the subcontractor packing from the hospital and hire us back,” said one of the first to be laid off, Ahmet Kural.

“They said, ‘We fired them because they didn’t agree to become a subcontractor.’ Who would agree to be a subcontractor? We know that being a subcontractor means working like a slave,” Kural said. “We don’t want to work as a subcontractor or without a union.”

The hospital workers’ resistance has not yet caused administrators to crack, but has provided a chance for international solidarity, with messages of support pouring in from around the globe.

Kural, too, served notice that the workers would be in for the long haul: “They can try and absolve themselves as much as they want, but our resistance will trump their lies.”



Stefan Martens, Journalist & member of DISK/Basın-İş Union (Progressive Union of Media Workers)


You may join online campaign to support Maltepe workers; LabourStart

LabourStart visit to a picket in Turkey, 2011

LabourStart visit to a picket in Turkey, 2011