On the Asian side of the Istanbul lies a district which I will call Yenitepe. [1] At its center it is a teeming municipality of small shops and low-rise working-class apartments, but at its edge Yenitepe’s streets branch into a haphazard network of dirt roads threading together houses in various stages of completion. In many ways, Yenitepe is typical of Istanbul, with a largely migrant rural population and rapid, uncontrolled growth which has been encroaching on the green hills of the city since the 1950s. Yenitepe has now been incorporated into the city proper but, like Istanbul itself, it remains a mixture of planned and unplanned housing and a haven for newly arriving families. Today over half the population of Turkey lives in urban areas. Istanbul’s population has grown from 1.5 million inhabitants in 1955 to 6 million in 1988 and 8 million in 1990. Over half of these are migrants living in “squatter” districts.

These families form a pool of largely unskilled labor that industry and export entrepreneurs have tapped through a system of piecework (or putting-out) and by subcontracting to workshops that use family labor. Both piecework and the family workshop are particularly suited for the organization of women’s labor, enabling them to reconcile earning additional income with traditional constraints that discourage women from leaving the home, having contact with strangers and taking over the role of provider.

Women’s production activities in these neighborhoods range from individual production in the home for friends and neighbors, to piecework for neighbors or outside middlemen, to workshop production either in or outside the home. In all of these types of production, production relations are disguised as social relations based on reciprocity.

The concentration of women in piecework and workshop production oriented toward the international market, notably in India and Mexico, is part of the growing tendency for large international firms to disconnect themselves from a particular national base, distributing their operations throughout the world wherever tax incentives, business laws and labor costs are most amenable. [2] In the United States, this decentralization of business and production can be seen in the rise of part-time, temporary and subcontracted work. Characteristically, this work is low-skilled, non-unionized and poorly remunerated, with no fringe benefits and little job security. [3]

In Turkey, piecework production has flourished in the past decade under the export-oriented liberal economic policies of the Motherland Party government. Export incentives for textile products have created new opportunities for merchants to utilize the vast pool of untapped labor represented by urban migrants. Premium prices in industrialized market countries for hand-crafted products make textile and leather garment production particularly suitable for subcontracting to small workshops and to pieceworkers.

Small capitalist enterprises also have responded to these new conditions, resulting in the emergence of a new group of wealthy entrepreneurs. [4] Piecework shops, however, are unable to accumulate capital because they are dependent on outside merchants both for the provision of raw materials and for access to markets. The pieceworkers themselves constitute a variable work force that changes daily as women enter and leave production. However, both workshop owners and piece-workers benefit from improved living standards. Financial benefits are reinvested in a traditional lifestyle.

Merchants and middlemen tend to be middle class, reflecting their access to capital, education, and local and international business contacts. As for piecework and family workshop owners and the pieceworkers themselves, their working-class identity is submerged in and subdivided by traditional forms of identification such as family, neighborhood, region of origin and gender, and by their seemingly contradictory economic roles. Workshop owners are both employees of merchants who provide raw materials and orders, and employers of waged and unwaged workers. Women pieceworkers and unpaid workers in family workshops, on the other hand, see their production activities as being primarily an expression of their traditional roles; they do not see themselves as “workers” at all.

Identifying Labor

Social science literature generally has treated small producers as a homogeneous class, emphasizing a Marxist framework of modes of production and their articulation, or a dualistic framework which localizes the economic activities of the poor as an “informal” or “marginal” sector. More recently, it has become clear that ideological and political factors must be considered to explain the persistence and rapid growth of such low-productivity enterprises in industrializing countries.

In Turkey’s poorer urban districts, women’s and children’s labor is most often organized in small family workshops and as piecework. The women see these income-producing activities, along with the more traditional labor of housewifery and motherhood, as being an expression of their identity as “good,” hard-working Muslim women. [5] The assumption is that any woman can knit, sew and do other handiwork. Women traditionally have spent a large part of their girlhoods preparing trousseau items: runners, coverlets, decorative cloths and scarves, Qur’an covers and so on. Trousseau preparation involves fine stitching, complex embroidery and crochet work. The skills — as much as the trousseau items themselves — are necessary for a young woman to be considered marriageable. By definition, a “good” woman worthy of being a wife and mother must know how to clean, cook, serve, embroider, knit and crochet. Above all, she must keep her hands busy. [6] The first things girls in Turkey learn are the labor skills which help define them both personally and socially as daughters, wives, mothers — all family-based roles.

In recent years, the labor skills that are part of the traditional family structure in Turkey have been harnessed in the service of world capital through the development of a widespread system of piecework both in the countryside and in the cities. The rapid growth and success of such low-productivity enterprises rests on the conflation of women’s labor (paid or unpaid) with their identity as family members, and on the low rates they are therefore paid for their work. Piecework, like work in family workshops and like housework, is considered women’s and children’s “natural” contribution to family life. This association of labor with women’s (and children’s) role identity allows their labor to be poorly remunerated or not paid at all. The women insist that this labor is not “work,” and do not keep track of time spent working or figure hourly rates for their labor.

The association of labor with women’s social identity makes it crucial that women’s production activities reflect the moral and religious parameters of that identity. A common form of income production among women in the squatter and other poor urban areas is individual home production, generally of clothing or embroidery, for friends and neighbors. The following example illustrates how this process devalues production and euphemizes sale as an expression of group solidarity, and how this is enforced through community pressure.

In Hayriye’s Parlor

Hayriye, a Qur’an teacher in Yenitepe, owns a knitting machine and produces clothing in her home to sell to friends and neighbors. The knitting machine, which looks like an electric organ, is set up by the window in a side room, positioned so that she can watch her three young children and talk to visitors while she is working. Both Hayriye and her husband teach in the local Qur’an school, but while her husband receives a small salary of 70,000 Turkish lira a month (about $47, slightly below the official minimum wage), she receives only gratuities from her pupils” parents.

Two and a half years ago Hayriye bought her knitting machine at a discount through her father’s connections with a merchant who was going out of business. She paid off the cost of the machine over a period of one year and, since the instructions were in English and Japanese, taught herself to use it through trial and error. She buys large quantities of thread at a time on credit and takes orders for clothing from neighborhood women. Working continuously, she can make a sweater in one day, but usually it takes two days.

Although Hayriye, by my calculations, works more than 40 hours a week at the machine, she insists that she is not working. On the day of my visit, seven women from the neighborhood sat in Hayriye’s parlor, drinking tea and talking. Many had brought along knitting or embroidery. When the conversation turned to my questions about why she did machine knitting, Hayriye explained nervously: “I really don’t do a lot of this. Just once in a while. I don’t sell it outside. My friends come and want something and I make it for them.” She was puzzled by my interest in her activities, since I had been introduced to her as someone interested in women “producing” at home and she did not see herself as belonging to a category of people who do regular work, sell their product to strangers, and rely on the money earned in this way. [7]

When the conversation turned to a neighborhood woman whom they described as doing this kind of knitting “continuously,” the women made plain their disapproval of her behavior. This woman, by taking her products in a bag to local merchants to sell, transgressed a number of cultural and religious rules about proper female comportment. The women called her a “bold busybody,” “shrewd” and “different.” “She knows how to profit from things!” “You should see how she knows this area.” They were scornful of her being out on the street where she had no business being, of her talking to strange men, and of her interest in “profit.” Hayriye, who also worked “full-time” at the same occupation, denied the production and profit aspects of her work, representing it instead as an act of generosity toward her friends.

By definition, “good” Muslim wives do not work outside the home among strangers, and those who do are morally suspect and subject to ridicule. Women’s participation in wage labor outside the home in Istanbul squatter areas was estimated to be as low as 5.5 percent in 1976. [8] In 1988, only 16.9 percent of all urban women were employed. [9] Under the present difficult economic circumstances, however, families need additional income to survive. [10] While many men also work at more than one job, women and children are able to contribute to the family’s economic security in two ways: directly through income derived from their labor, and indirectly by reaffirming their membership in the community through the contribution and exchange of labor and services. As long as production activities are seen to be an expression of group identity and solidarity, rather than “work,” they remain morally and socially acceptable, part of the reciprocal obligation and redistribution that provide the foundation for group security.

The organization of women’s and children’s labor in family and neighborhood workshops and as piecework expresses their membership in these social groups, that is, as daughters, wives, mothers, neighbors and so on. This allows them to contribute financially while remaining reconciled with the moral standards of the traditional family. The production of goods — often for export — contributes to the family income and to the Turkish economy through its links to the world market, but the labor involved is not seen to be “work.”

The basic social groups of family and neighborhood provide reliable long-term economic and social security within impersonal, perceptibly hostile, economic conditions. For middlemen, exporters and merchants, the conflation of labor with a woman’s traditional identity is one factor that keeps production costs low and profits high. Payment for labor can be kept below the subsistence level because systems of reciprocal obligation among neighbors, relatives and co-workers, and between city and village help redistribute the money, goods and services needed for survival. The traditional family system is expected to provide social security and care of the old and sick, allowing businesses to avoid insurance, social security or pension contributions.

Organizing Family Labor

At the least organized level, the individual (male or female) like Hayriye works at home, knitting, sewing, stitching, filling car batteries, doing repairs, woodworking and so on, for neighbors or friends. The transition to doing piecework for a workshop is quite fluid, since the workshop owner is often a relative or a neighbor who acts as a central conduit for materials and orders obtained from a middleman or merchant outside the neighborhood, and for collecting and delivering the completed products and obtaining payment for them.

Distribution usually takes place in cooperation with other family members, and is organized by gender. The person dealing with the world outside of the neighborhood is usually a father, brother or other male relative. He obtains the orders and materials and brings them into the neighborhood. His wife distributes the materials to her female neighbors and collects the finished pieces. The husband keeps the books and pays out the money to the women for their work, usually once or twice a month. The women are paid only after the workshop owner receives money for the finished products. If there is a delay, the women must wait, sometimes for months.

Payment for one or more pieces is always withheld to ensure that the women will return with the materials they were given to work on the next batch. This also has the effect of inducing loyalty, since the women must return and, when there, generally ask for more work rather than for final payment.

The family may set aside a room in the home as a small workshop where materials are prepared, stored, distributed and collected. If production expands, they may rent a small storefront nearby, and hire young neighborhood girls and boys to supplement the family labor. Scraps of leather, for example, must be cut into long strips so that they can be knitted into vests, or be cut into shapes and have holes punched along their edges so that they can be joined into skirts and tops destined for export to Europe and the US.

The labor of family members, like women’s household labor, is seen as their “natural” contribution to family life, and the proceeds of family loyalty are paid out in accordance with family tradition: bride wealth, trousseaux, engagement and wedding celebrations, furnishings for the new home, as well as pre-marriage expenses and, more rarely, education. Other workshop employees are paid little, and unpaid labor is donated by neighbors and friends. The minimal salaries are justified by pointing out that young girls are only working to earn money for trousseau materials. There is a high turnover as the girls leave at marriage, often at age 16.

Although no exact statistics are available, it is clear that piecework is widespread in the working-class districts of Istanbul. According to one estimate, pieceworkers make up the largest section of the industrial and perhaps event he total labor force of Turkey. [11] Piecework can be done one an individual basis for friends and neighbors, or can be more structured, with women and children in whole neighborhoods working for a particular middleman, making items that can be produced or finished by hand and then exported.

Contemporary piecework has taken on forms different from older handicrafts such as trousseau preparation. In addition to knitting, crocheting and sewing, pieceworkers today assemble cardboard boxes, necklaces, prayer beads and doorbells, and stitch decoration onto shoes and clothing.

Fatma and the Dentist

In some neighborhoods, hundreds of women are hired by one particular piecework organizer operating out of a storefront. Such large-scale organizers are often outsiders to the community, although there may be some kinship to a local family. In Yolkent, a new squatter settlement along the main highway that connects Istanbul to Ankara, the piecework organizer is a dentist who lives and works in another part of the city. He comes into the neighborhood at regular intervals and opens the door to his storefront. Before long, a line of women extends down the street, bringing back completed sweaters, picking up new materials, and hoping for payment. Fatma, who had accompanied me to meet the owner, explained that he had not given out any money in months because, he said, the money from abroad had not reached his bank.

A young girl behind the counter weighed the yarn before giving it to the women, and also weighed the completed sweaters to be sure that the women had kept none of the yarn for themselves. The women were paid 5,000 lira ($3.36) for each completed sweater. The owner continuously owes each woman an average of 30-40,000 lira ($20-27), which is never completely paid out.

He employs between 125 and 150 women, most of them from this neighborhood. In Yolkent, he said, there are also firms that hire women to do embroidery and knit leather vests, and about 10 other firms doing knitting. His own firm is small compared to some in larger neighborhoods that hire thousands of women.

There is great competition among the largest piecework organizers in Istanbul, who guard their labor supply and their designs jealously, even sending women as spies to discover their competitors’ patterns. They try to undercut each other in the price of their products abroad. Piece rates, on the other hand, generally vary by about 2,000 lira ($1.34) and rise only very slowly, despite rapid inflation. Too much competition in piece rates could easily damage the market advantage that cheap labor gives these small firms. Firms try to create a loyal work force through a combination of paternalism, neighborhood identification, asking for a deposit and never paying out the complete amount owed the women.

The women themselves are almost all migrants from the village. The middleman explained that “the women just do this to kill time while they are watching their children and doing housework. They also work for lack of money; they want pots and pans; the peddler passes by. They don’t tell their husbands. They have an additional income of their own. They can buy a teapot or a rug. A woman teaches her daughter too. And there are homes where the daughter-in-law sits with the mother-in-law and they knit. If there are three in the family doing this, they earn more than the husband.” [12]

Only rarely did these owners reinvest in expanding production. They expanded only in response to larger orders, and then cautiously. Their income was used primarily to improve the status of the family through the purchase of large consumer items such as video recorders or cars, or to add another story to the family house.

The women’s income is used for traditionally female purchases, for example, to complete the inventory of household items such as pots and pans, carpets, and furniture items traditionally the responsibility of the women’s side of the family at marriage and which they were perhaps too poor to afford at the time. Women also use their earnings to purchase food and clothing for their children and perhaps to pay for school supplies for their sons. A woman has primary responsibility for her children’s health, upbringing and education.

Another variation of piecework organization eliminates the workshop owner. Instead, a merchant directly subcontracts to neighborhood families, who may then subcontract work to other families. However, the boundaries are quite fluid between direct distribution of piecework, distribution through a piecework shop, and production of the entire product in a family workshop, both in terms of organization and location.

Asiye, in an outlying working-class Istanbul suburb, provides an example of direct piecework subcontracting. She sits on the carpet in the living room of her small apartment, painstakingly counting out fragile pencil leads, as delicate as hairs, from a large container. When she has counted ten leads, she hands them to her daughter-in-law, squatting beside her, who puts them into a tiny clear plastic tube. Mehmet, her eight-year old son, puts on the tight-fitting black lid and hands it to seven-year old Arif, who sticks on a gold label identifying the contents and puts it into a cardboard box. Each box holds 24 tubes. Payment is two lira per tube without label, and three lira per tube with label.

Asiye also distributes materials to five other neighbor families. Ahmet is the owner of a wholesale stationery business which sells the packaged leads. His assistant delivers the materials to Asiye and picks up the packaged pencil leads at irregular intervals, depending on inventory needs. The pieceworkers are paid once a month or every ten days or, if they specifically ask for the money, more often. Ahmet explains: “If we give the money to them in a lump sum, like 100,000 lira ($67), then they can buy something for it. If we give it to them each time, they’ll fritter it away. This is a sort of enforced savings.” A tube of pencil leads sells wholesale for between 50 and 280 lira, depending on the type of lead. Ahmet sells them to local shops, and is trying to establish an export agreement with Saudi Arabia.

In all three types of organization of labor — individual production, organized piecework and the family workshop — the women generally see their production as labor but not as “work.” In their own words, they “do” this labor, and they “give [the product] out.” It is difficult and time-consuming, like housework. The women do occasionally ask for a higher piece rate, particularly when the employer is a relative outsider to the community, as with Ahmet or the dentist, and hires a large number of women. His relationship with the producers lacks much of the sense of mutual obligation that disguises economic activity between neighbors and kin. Nevertheless, in such cases relations of production are disguised as paternalistic concern for the welfare of the women producers.

Among themselves, the women keep to the fiction that they are not “working.” This allows them to avoid the onus of being considered women who have economic dealings with strangers, women who have to “work,” presumably because their husbands are not able to support their families financially. As a result of this ideological filter, both the women themselves and their employers undervalue the women’s labor and do not consider it to have a market value.

Women’s labor, paid or unpaid, fills the gap left by public and private sector wages that are below the subsistence level. Their attitude toward labor, reinforced by that of their employers, lowers production costs and increases profits for the exporter and, ultimately, for the seller abroad of these goods. It allows the creation of a stable yet flexible and cheap work force requiring neither infrastructure nor benefits, posing no threat of organizing and therefore making no demands as a distinct segment of the economy.


[1] This article is based on research from 1986-1988 funded by grants from Fulbright-Hays and the National Science Foundation. Names of people and neighborhoods mentioned are pseudonyms.
[2] See, for example, Lourdes Beneria and Martha Roldan, The Crossroads of Class and Gender: Industrial Homework, Subcontracting and Household Dynamics in Mexico City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Maria Mies, The Lace Makers of Narsapur: Indian Housewives Produce for the World Market (London: Zed Press, 1982).
[3] See, for example, Kathleen E. Christensen, ed., The New Era of Home-Based Work: Directions and Policies (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988).
[4] This is discussed in Sencer Ayata, “Economic Growth and Petty Commodity Production in Turkey,” Social Analysis 20 (1988).
[5] The attempt to consolidate work for pay with family duties and cultural constructions of gender identity is a characteristic of female participation in piecework or family-organized production and temporary work in other areas of the world as well. But while such work is devalued and marginalized in such countries as Mexico, India, and the United States, as well as in Turkey, the cultural constructions of gender roles which provide the ideological justification for this vary.
[6] This link between labor and women’s social identity is not unique to Turkey. The importance of industriousness in the identity of American women and its expression through knitting is discussed in Anne L. Macdonald, No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting (New York: Ballantine, 1988).
[7] This tendency to view work as a leisure activity, even where it is a full-time occupation, has been noted, for example, in India (Mies), Mexico (Beneria and Roldan) and among rural Turkish carpet weavers (Günseli Berik, Women Carpet Weavers in Rural Turkey: Patterns of Employment, Earnings, and Status (Geneva: ILO, 1987).
[8] Tansi Senyapili, Gecekondu: Cevre Isçilerin Mehoni (Ankara: Middle East Technical University, Department of Architecture, 1981).
[9] State Institute of Statistics, 1990.
[10] In September 1988 the official rate of inflation approached 80 percent, but actual inflation for staple food products (between July 1987 and July 1988) ranged from 150 percent (for bread) to 430 percent (for rice). Cumhuriyet (June 1, 1988) estimated the monthly minimum food expenditure for a family of four living in Istanbul to be 217,000 lira ($146). The minimum wage was raised in 1988 so that the net monthly salary of the average worker was 83,000 lira ($56).
[11] Sencer Ayata, Differentiation and Capital Accumulation: Case Studies of the Carpet and Metal Industries in Kayseri, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Kent, 1982.
[12] Peddlers sell their wares, usually household goods, on an installment plan, passing through a neighborhood at regular intervals to pick up payment.

How to cite this article:

Jenny White "Women and Work in Istanbul," Middle East Report 173 (November/December 1991).

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