Kandir Baysu has been hospitalized twice over the past eight years, both times for more than two months and requiring dozens of blood transfusions. Baysu, a worker at a battery manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Istanbul, thinks he is about due for another hospital stay. As in the past, he expects the diagnosis to be the same: lead poisoning.

Unlike hundreds of thousands of factory workers across Turkey, Baysu is relatively lucky. A lengthy series of newspaper articles and union-backed court battles in the late 1970s drew nationwide attention to health and safety conditions at Mutlu, forcing the government to take the rare move of shutting down the plant until certain changes were instituted.

Although factory conditions did not drastically change — mandatory quarterly blood and urine tests show Mutlu workers are still routinely exposed to unsafe levels of lead — workers say that at least they know why they are vomiting and feeling sluggish, and the employer cannot easily disclaim responsibility and avoid paying hospital costs.

“It’s too late for me to find another job,” says 38-year-old Baysu, who looks closer to 55. “But we all say to our children to go elsewhere for work. It’s just too dangerous here.”

From Istanbul to Izmit, hundreds of factories dot the coast of the Sea of Marmara, churning out everything from textiles to fertilizers to car parts. But according to some doctors and union officials, these factories are also producing something else: death and disease for workers, dangerous levels of environmental pollution and possible illness for family members exposed to substances brought home on clothing.

As Turkey vacillates between development and underdevelopment, government officials and factory owners are just now being confronted by issues of occupational health and safety. This growing awareness notwithstanding, little is being done to correct a situation that has long since reached critical proportions in terms of injuries, deaths and rates of occupational diseases.

Hampered by laws favoring employers and restricting the rights of unions, union officials have chosen to combat this problem by educating workers about the dangers in the workplace. But without expanded strike rights and better government enforcement of its own laws setting occupational health and safety standards, they feel they can do little to confront the dangers workers face.

“For many workers in this country,” said Ilyas Köstekli, an official from Petrol-Iş (the union for petroleum, chemical and rubber workers), “knowledge about occupational diseases does not change their basic situation. Given the choice between starving now and dying later, workers prefer to take their chances in the factory.”

In a country where unemployment is close to 20 percent, inflation fluctuates around 70 percent and social benefits such as unemployment insurance and welfare benefits nonexistent, occupational health and safety issues often run second to questions of employment opportunities and wage rates. Turkey’s application for entrance into the European Economic Community, along with growing ties between the Turkish labor movement and unions abroad, has forced more attention on occupational conditions here. So far, though, the government has reacted by pointing to its extensive labor laws, failing to add that most of them are poorly if ever enforced. As a result, union officials say their goal is to convince workers of the importance of health and safety issues.

“This is not an easy task,” says Köstekli. “If we fight to have a factory closed, than the workers get angry at us for threatening their livelihood. So instead we stress preventive measures, which, given the unwillingness of factory owners to support proposals that cost money, are not really lessening the dangers workers face.”

On Paper, In Practice

The government-run Social Security Institute (SSK) says that in 1987 (the latest year for which statistics were available), 158,836 people were injured on the job, 2,483 were permanently disabled and 838 people died, with a total of 2.5 million workdays lost due to temporary injuries. Out of 2.8 million workers, 736 suffered from a job-related disease, almost half of them from lead poisoning, 249 people were permanently disabled from occupational illnesses, while 311 died. Even these figures are considered unrealistically low by some doctors and union officials, who say occupational injuries often go unreported by employers, and many workplace-related illnesses are not identified as such. Doctors say the overall rate of 0.256 percent would be low even in Western Europe.

These statistics are drawn solely from people who are treated in the special occupational injury and disease sections within SSK hospitals: There are only two hospitals with special units and two clinics, a total of 160 beds. In addition, only four doctors in the whole country specialize in occupational diseases, while none of the medical schools offer any courses in workplace-related illnesses. “There are probably many people who end up in a regular hospital suffering from an occupational disease which is never diagnosed as such,” says Dr. Nazif Yeşilleten, director of the SSK hospital in Kartal, which has 100 beds for occupational diseases.

Petrol-Iş surveyed its 70,000 union members in 1986 and claims a much higher incidence of workplace-related diseases and injuries than the SSK figures for workers in similar industries. According to Petrol-Iş, chemical, rubber and petroleum workers have an overall injury rate of 16 percent, while the rate of occupational illnesses is about 6 percent (although union officials believe this number is also unrealistic due to the difficulty in identifying such illnesses). Regardless of what the exact figures are, doctors, union officials and international monitors believe the numbers are sufficiently high to warrant immediate action.

As is often the case in Turkey and elsewhere, government policy falls short not in legislation but in enforcement. The Ministry of Labor has extensive regulations governing workplace health and safety. Yet it employs fewer than 400 people to monitor factories, and union officials say seeking action from the labor ministry on specific complaints is often an exercise in futility.

“You must remember this is Turkey,” laughed Hacer Tuna, a lawyer for Petrol-Iş. “Things on paper mean very little in practice.” Over three months ago, she said, the union filed a complaint against a factory in Adana where a worker was killed while operating a piece of machinery. “But still, no inspector has been sent to the site and in the meantime, workers are still using the same dangerous machinery.”

Even if an inspector finds faults in the factory and fines the employer, the employer still has the right to appeal the decision, a right not extended to the union in opposite circumstances. In any case, the fines are too low to have any real deterrent effect, said Tuna. Currently fines run between TL30,000 and TL60,000 ($15-$30). Although they are supposed to double each month the violations remain, inspectors rarely return to see if the necessary changes have been made.

Workers on Their Own

Such poor enforcement comes as little surprise to unions and workers, who are used to the policies of Prime Minister Turgut Özal designed to liberalize the Turkish economy and attract greater foreign investment. Since the 1980 military coup, real wages have declined by about 40 percent due to a combination of inflation and restrictions on the right to bargain collectively.

“We are basically on our own against a government which has no interest in matters concerning the welfare of others,” says Köstekli. “It’s up to us to teach workers about their rights. Next, we have to engage in passive strike action — such as lunch boycotts, because most other strike action is illegal. But in general, the economic conditions here make it very difficult for us to convince workers to take action which could endanger their jobs.”

Recently, the use of asbestos in factories has drawn attention from unions and workers. While the dangers of asbestos have been well-known for decades in the United States and Western Europe, a spokesman for the labor ministry assured me that only “blue” asbestos was dangerous, adding that was why they only imported “white” asbestos into the country. A recent conference in Istanbul, he said, concluded that “Turkey was one of the countries least affected by asbestos.” In fact, there is no clear-cut difference in the disease-causing potential of the three different types, commonly referred to as white, brown and blue asbestos. Köstekli, who also attended the conference, explained that it was sponsored by Canadian asbestos exporters who see Turkey as one of the few remaining markets in which the use of asbestos is not heavily regulated.

In fact, a government-sponsored labor research institute — ISGUM — recently started a study of the potential dangers of asbestos use in Turkey. This project is not highly regarded by union officials, who point to numerous studies already available from the US and Europe. As to how asbestos is used in Turkey, and what preventive measures are taken, one need only to visit the Asbest End H.S. factory in Kartal.

Which is exactly what Köstekli and I did one Saturday morning. I had found it hard to believe his stories about asbestos use in Turkey, given the proven link between inhaling asbestos fibers and developing asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Asbest End is one of dozens of factories in the area using asbestos to produce brake lining pads and other frictional material. Petrol-Iş has been holding a series of educational seminars for workers there about asbestos dangers. After the latest seminar, Köstekli said one man came up to him and said, “All right, so you tell me I am going to die in a few years from disease. Well in the meanwhile, what do you expect me to do? I have to still get up tomorrow morning and go to work.”

Workers at Asbest End are provided with only the barest minimum of protective clothing. Everyone gets a smock, rubber gloves, and paper surgical masks (which they are told to reuse for a few days), none of which are sufficient to protect against the asbestos dust swirling in the air as men manually shovel it from bin to bin, take it out of bags and break it down to dust, and shave the brake pads into proper size.

Most workers were not wearing masks; those who were had to push them off their faces every so often because the factory heat made it difficult to breathe. Over lunch in the cafeteria — rice, beans, bread and some vegetables — three workers explained why they usually did not bother to wear face masks.

“I don’t know if it is that dangerous,” said one man who had been working there for nine years. “Every month a doctor comes and gives us an examination, and so far he has never said anything.” Another said he did not believe the doctor. “He takes X-rays sometimes and then comes back a few weeks later and says everything is fine. But how do I know if he is telling the truth?” A third man, the shop steward, said that lately some workers had complained of chest pains. “But it could be anything. Anyway, I’ve heard about how dangerous asbestos is, but the employer here tells us not to worry and it’s not as if we can convince him to change things here. Certainly not if it costs money.”

Government officials and employers often say workers are too “uneducated and fatalistic” to take care of themselves properly. “The people in this country are uneducated and they deliver themselves to God,” said the owner of the asbestos factory, Dyas Murtezaoğlu. “In Western countries, you are more conscious of the ill effects of certain materials. I distribute masks and gloves here, but the workers don’t want to use them. So what am I supposed to do? I am not their parents.”

The problems unions face in trying to have health and safety measures enforced is inextricably tied to the problems they face in exercising internationally accepted rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining. The 1982 constitution drawn up by the military regime forbids civil servants and teachers from joining unions, and unions from engaging in political activity (defined very broadly). The ministries of labor and the interior can investigate unions’ internal affairs at will. Before a union can call a strike it must go through a lengthy process and even then the government can “postpone” the strike. Strikes are prohibited in numerous sectors such as petroleum production, where disputes must be submitted to a government-controlled arbitration board. Finally, unions are forbidden from calling secondary or solidarity strikes, wildcat strikes and general strikes.

Although health and safety issues are almost always discussed during contract negotiations, unions find it difficult to demand better work conditions at the expense of higher wages. Finally, contract stipulations are no guarantee of enforcement and workers here choose again and again to endanger their lives rather than lose wages. “I’ve had workers beg me not to force the issue with the employer and government because they fear losing their job. If we were to get a factory closed for gross violations, the workers would be angry at us,” said Köstekli.

How to cite this article:

Aliza Marcus "Occupational Health and Safety in Turkey," Middle East Report 161 (November/December 1989).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This