Human Resources and Trade Unions

Turkey Table of Contents

In the early 1990s, Turkey suffered from serious structural unemployment, although the country continued to lack skilled workers and managers. The number of people engaged in subsistence agriculture and in informal labor complicated efforts to make accurate estimates of unemployment and underemployment. In the absence of direct surveys, available statistical data only broadly indicated trends in labor markets (see table 5, Appendix A). In 1992 the civilian labor force totaled almost 18.5 million; the government estimated that unemployment was about 8.7 percent, but unofficial sources put it at 15 percent for 1993. In a study, the State Institute of Statistics estimated that unemployment in urban areas among those aged fifteen to twenty-four was 30.2 percent. According to official figures for 1992, about 44 percent of those employed worked in agriculture--down from more than 75 percent in the early 1960s. Employment in industry and construction amounted to about 20 percent in 1994, and the services sector employed about 35 percent.

During the postwar period, as agriculture modernized and grew more productive, many agricultural workers became redundant. Many now-jobless farmers, attracted by higher wages in the urban economy, migrated to the cities. Although industry and services grew rapidly after 1950, these sectors did not create enough jobs to meet the demand.

Demographic trends portend continued unemployment problems. Population growth rates declined somewhat after the 1970s, but in the mid-1990s demographers were predicting that the active population (those between fifteen and sixty-four years of age) would increase at more than 2 percent per year until at least 2000. The labor force grew at an estimated average annual rate of 2 percent during the 1960s and 1970s, at 1.5 to 2.0 percent during the early 1980s, and at 2.2 percent per year from 1985 to 1992. The several austerity programs since 1980 exacerbated the unemployment situation in the mid-1980s, with an estimated 3 million Turks unemployed in 1985. The recovery of the economy in the late 1980s appeared to improve the overall situation; manufacturing employment increased 3.4 percent per year. However, the economic crisis of early 1994 and the austerity program once again were expected to slow employment growth.

The labor force would have grown even faster during the 1970s and 1980s had it not been for a fall in the work force participation rate from about 73 percent in the 1970s to 35 percent in the early 1990s. This decline resulted from increased enrollments in secondary and postsecondary education and from the tendency of rural women who migrated to the city to refrain from entering the work force. Most demographers believed that participation rates would continue to fall as a result of higher overall school and female education rates. By 1991 the secondary school enrollment ratios, particularly for females, lagged significantly behind primary school enrollment ratios, implying room for higher future enrollment. Even if participation rates continue to fall, however, projected population growth rates will make unemployment a continuing problem.

Unemployment has caused distortions in rural and urban labor markets. Many farmers have remained on unproductive farms to avoid more uncertain fates in the cities. In addition, the large postwar increase in employment in the services sector probably reflects wide-scale underemployment, as unemployed persons resort to working as street vendors and domestic workers. The largest groups of the unemployed include educated youths from urban areas, migrants dislocated from the villages and living in shantytowns, and Turks returning from working abroad.

Emigration has provided a partial safety valve for excess labor, especially during the period between 1969 and 1973, when more than 100,000 workers left each year to seek jobs abroad. The capital-intensive, labor-short countries of northwestern Europe began recruiting workers from southern Europe and the Mediterranean basin in the 1950s. Turkish workers began emigrating to Western Europe in large numbers in the early 1960s, as the demand for labor increased in northern Europe and as the supply from southern Italy dried up because of increased domestic demand. Although Turks worked in many European countries, most went to the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). Many Turkish workers also went to France, Austria, and the Netherlands. The number of Turkish workers going abroad peaked near 136,000 in 1973. The oil shock of that year and the 1974-75 recession led to restrictions on new guest workers throughout Western Europe, including a ban in West Germany. These measures caused a sharp decline in Turkish emigration to Western Europe--which averaged only 18,000 per year from 1974 to 1980--and became an important issue between Turkey and the European Community. Despite the restrictions, in 1981 there were still about 1 million Turkish workers in Western Europe, half of them in West Germany.

After the unification of Germany in 1989, pressure mounted to return so-called foreign workers to their home countries even though many had been born in Europe. High unemployment rates, especially in eastern Germany, spurred neo-Nazi political parties to agitate for forced repatriation, and some groups used violence against immigrants. In one celebrated case in Rostock, members of a Turkish family were burned to death in their own home. Other European states also witnessed a rise in hostility toward guest workers, including Turks. In France, the National Front Party, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, gained much support for its anti-immigrant stance.

After 1975 Turkish workers went more often to Arab oil states than to Western Europe. Each year from 1980 through 1982, more than 24,000 workers went to Libya and more than 10,000 to Saudi Arabia. During the same period, a yearly average of only 370 Turkish workers went to West Germany. By 1982 about 150,000 Turks were employed in Saudi Arabia, Libya, and the small Arabian Peninsula states. However, economic difficulties faced by oil-producing states in the mid- and late 1980s reduced opportunities for further Turkish emigration.

In general, the Turkish government has looked favorably on worker emigration, despite concerns that skilled workers are being lost because it is better-educated Turks who tend to emigrate. In 1994 an estimated 1.1 million Turkish workers were in Western Europe, of whom about 750,000 were in Germany. More than 200,000 were in Middle Eastern countries. Workers in Europe usually stay abroad several years, remitting funds to relatives in Turkey. Most eventually return with their accumulated savings to start a small business or buy a farm. Turks working in the Middle East, in contrast, tend to work for Turkish construction firms and typically return after each project is completed; these workers tend to remit a larger share of earnings to their families. The flow of workers' remittances became financially significant after 1965, when they reached the equivalent of US$70 million. By the early 1990s, this figure had reached US$3 billion per year.

Like most developing countries, Turkey lacks an adequate number of trained and skilled personnel. In the early 1990s, the demand for educated and skilled workers exceeded the limited number of technically and scientifically trained graduates.

Trade unions play an important role with reference to labor in the more modern sectors of the economy. Most agricultural and service workers do not belong to unions, but a substantial part of the industrial labor force in larger enterprises and some workers in other sectors, such as transportation, trade, and finance, are unionized; public-sector workers are the most likely to join a union. In the 1960s and 1970s, the wage and benefit gains of unionized workers exerted a positive influence on the income levels of nonunionized workers. After the 1980s, however, the labor movement weakened. Not only are unions smaller in terms of membership--Ministry of Labor and Social Security figures for 1985 suggested that unions included about 1.8 million workers, or about 10 percent of the civilian work force--but severe limits on their activities have kept them politically weak. As a result, during the 1980s organized labor suffered large cuts in real earnings.

By the mid-1970s, Turkey had about 800 unions, many of which had memberships in the hundreds. Few were what might be called nationwide unions; several had extensive membership in a particular industry, which gave them a leverage that most unions lacked. Many unions joined national federations to exert more influence. Before the 1980 coup, four main trade union federations with differing political orientations dominated the labor scene. The main union organization, the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (Türkiye Isçi Sendikalari Konfederasyonu--Türk-Is) was politically moderate, adhering to legal limits on its activities. The other major union group, the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers' Trade Unions of Turkey (Türkiye Devrimçi Isçi Sendikalari Konfederasyonu--DISK), originated from a faction of Türk-Is in 1967. DISK was much smaller than Türk-Is but more militant. In addition, small numbers of workers belonged to the pro-Islamist Confederation of Turkish Just Workers' Unions (Türkiye Hak Isçi Sendikalari Konfederasyonu--Hak-Is) and the right-wing Confederation of Turkish Nationalist Workers' Unions (Türkiye Milliyetçi Isçi Sendikalari Konfederasyonu--MISK). After the 1980 coup, all union federations except Türk-Is were banned for a period. Subsequently, the government allowed the other union groups to resume their activities.

Figures on trade union membership vary, but Ministry of Labor statistics at least give an idea of the relative sizes of the unions. According to this source, in 1992 Türk-Is had a membership of about 1.7 million, Hak-Is had about 330,000 members, and DISK had about 26,000 members. In addition, Turkey had twenty-four independent unions that did not belong to federations. The size of their memberships was uncertain in early 1995, but organized labor totaled almost 2.2 million workers in 1992. Workers could legally belong to more than one union, which explains some of the confusion surrounding membership statistics.

Established in 1952, Türk-Is includes many workers employed in SEEs and was the only union group actively involved in large-scale collective bargaining in the early 1990s. Strongly centralized, Türk-Is is dominated by a few large, conservative unions; the social democratic unions that figure among its thirty affiliates have little say in federation affairs. In adherence to the law, Türk-Is has remained technically aloof from party politics but is interested in issues affecting labor. Türk-Is is affiliated with the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations through its membership in the Asian-American Free Labor Institute, which provides training for union leaders. Since 1980 Türk-Is has generally refrained from calling strikes, perhaps because of fears that labor conflicts might lead to layoffs of surplus SEE personnel.

Against a background of growing labor unrest in 1994, related to deepening economic problems, budget cuts, and privatization, Türk-Is coordinated wage talks with the government at the end of the year. Although accused of earlier and questionable cooperation with the government, Türk-Is faced widespread pressure from affiliated unions and their members not to agree to the increase the government was offering. Both DISK and Hak-Is had strongly opposed a pay increase of 102 percent for the Türk-Is-affiliated Teksif union at the end of 1994 on the grounds that the size of the pay increase did not meet the much higher inflation rates and the agreement was co-optive.

DISK, Türk-Is's chief rival, draws its members primarily from the private sector and from municipal workers. In the mid-1990s, it seemed that supporters of left-wing unions such as DISK were shifting to Islamist-oriented ones. Nonetheless, DISK-affiliated unions continued to exert some influence as part of overall labor pressure to maintain wage and employment levels.

Before 1980 Hak-Is was reportedly tied to the pro-Islamic National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi--MSP), whereas MISK supported the Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi--MHP). In 1980 the two federations claimed memberships of 68,000 and 290,000, respectively. After 1984 they played only a minor role in collective bargaining because they lacked sufficient membership to be considered representative under new labor legislation.

The 1980 military intervention severely restricted trade union activities. The 1982 constitution and the laws on union organization, collective bargaining, strikes, and lockouts passed in 1983 have made Turkey's unions the most tightly controlled in noncommunist Europe. To have the right to represent the workers at a given facility, unions must prove that they have the support of at least 10 percent of union membership within the industry and a majority at the particular workplace. Political and general strikes and many forms of industrial action, including secondary strikes, work slowdowns, and picketing, are prohibited. About half of the unionized workers, including those in the gas, water, electricity, mining, and petroleum industries as well as those in banking, urban transit, garbage collection and firefighting, are allowed to strike. Strikes can be called only after a written announcement to the government, which may require a ninety-day cooling-off period followed by compulsory arbitration. Workers who strike illegally may be punished with as much as eighteen months in prison, and those who participate in such strikes can be fired, with the loss of all accumulated financial claims, including pensions.

Following the 1980 coup, the military government prohibited collective bargaining until May 1984, after which time officials continued trying to restrain wage settlements in order to limit inflation. Although private-sector wage settlements in 1984 and 1985 included increases ranging from 25 to 60 percent, pay adjustments generally continued to run behind the inflation rate, resulting in declines in real wages. The government took a more relaxed attitude in the late 1980s, but by 1994 the authorities were once again using antistrike regulations from the early 1980s to stop strikes and other job actions.

In the public sector, the government has been even more successful at holding the line against wage increases, although large increases in 1992-93 led to a sharp jump in government expenditures. With a limited endorsement by the IMF, government employees' wages were targeted as the primary means of achieving budget cuts in 1994 and early 1995. As part of this strategy, Prime Minister Çiller attempted to use illegal strikes as a pretext for liquidating certain public enterprises; unionized workers also would be notified that there were plenty of unemployed people willing to do their jobs for lower pay. In early 1995, unions for public-sector workers outside the public enterprises faced the possibility of being abolished altogether. Also, seasonal workers with part-time jobs working on village roads, irrigation projects, and other infrastructure components were to be placed under the authority of provincial authorities, an arrangement that would cost them their labor rights. People employed with "worker" status, who therefore had certain rights under the law, were reclassified as "public servants" with no right to bargain collectively or to strike. Members of this group fared badly in the mid-1990s, with declining wages accompanying their loss of rights.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress