Selma Atabey had been working as a nurse in Turkey’s south-eastern province of Diyarbakır for 22 years when she was summarily dismissed from her job by government decree in late October. “I’ve had to sell my house and my car, I’ve lost my SGK [social security],” she says. “My son is getting ready for the high-school entrance exam and I’m afraid he won’t do well because of the stress we’re under.”
Atabey is just one of tens of thousands of public-sector employees removed from their posts in Turkey following a failed military coup in July, a series of on-going purges that the government says are necessary for the country’s security.
Many of the dismissed civil servants believe that they have instead been targeted for their union activity.
Some 200 fired workers and their supporters from Turkey’s Confederation of Public Employees Trade Unions (KESK) gathered on 22 December in Istanbul amid biting cold, rain, and wind to embark on a protest march to the capital city of Ankara, demanding ‘We want our jobs back!’
A first attempt at the 450-kilometre march, which aims to draw attention to the firings, was thwarted the previous day by riot police who shot tear gas at the crowd.
Marchers clashed again with police in İzmit where police tried to block them from leaving the union office. Facing mounting police pressure, they decided in the end to head to Ankara by bus where they held a demonstration on 24 December.
‘We are only fighting for our rights, and they accuse us of being terrorists,’ says Atabey, who serves as the Diyarbakır branch co-chair of the Health and Social Services Workers Union (SES), a KESK affiliate. Though the nurse says she has never previously been investigated for any reason, the government decrees removing her and others from the civil service identify them as having “membership in or affiliation with a terrorist organisation or a structure, formation, or group determined by [Turkey’s] National Security Council to be acting against the national security of the state.”
These decrees have been issued under the on-going state of emergency declared in Turkey following the 15 July coup attempt, in which more than 300 people were killed. The failed putsch has been blamed on followers of the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, previously a close ally and now a nemesis of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The public-sector purges have targeted people with alleged links to Gülen as well as those accused of ties to the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and related groups. Nearly 500 people in Turkey have been killed over the past 18 months in bomb attacks attributed either to the PKK and its offshoots or to ISIS-linked assailants.
“Terrorist movements are seeking to destabilise our democracies and undermine our values. We cannot allow terrorists to take control of our lives,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mehmet Çavuşoğlu told the Council of Europe in October, defending his country against criticism of its recent crackdowns.
After the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated in Ankara this week by a man identified as an off-duty Turkish police officer, Erdoğan adviser İlnur Çevik said the killing showed that the purges were “simply not enough.”
Mass arrests, mass firings
Since the state of emergency was first declared, approximately 125,000 people employed by the government have been dismissed from their posts and nearly 40,000 have been arrested.
These totals include police officers and soldiers suspected of aiding or supporting the coup attempt, as well as tens of thousands of teachers, health workers, and other public officials.
Mustafa Yurtsever, an anaesthesia technician, and his wife, a midwife, were both dismissed from their jobs at a state hospital in the south-eastern province of Batman by a government order issued 22 November. “We learned about it online like everyone else,” says Yurtsever, the Batman branch chair of SES. “We have three children and our living standards have dropped very dramatically since becoming unemployed.”
According to Yurtsever and other fired workers, private hospitals and other employers outside the public sector – which generally pay a lower wage than government jobs – are being pressured not to hire people dismissed through these state decrees. That amounts to a blacklisting from potential job opportunities.
The scope of the purges has drawn some comparisons to the aftermath of the 1980 coup, the most recent military overthrow in Turkish history.
Some 650,000 people were detained and 230,000 prosecuted in that period, and a series of statutes enacted post-coup, as well as the constitution adopted in 1982, severely restricted unionisation and strike actions as well as other aspects of civil society.
Unions under pressure
Unions are less of a primary target in the current purges than they were in the 1980s, according to Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University in the United States.
But he characterises the civil servants, including teachers, and other professionals being targeted now as “the last hold-outs of resistance to the monopolisation of the public sphere” by Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“Whether because they are suspected Gülenists or because they are merely critical of the state, the AKP is now determined to break them,” Eissenstat tells Equal Times. “The irony is that the AKP first came to power promising to undo the anti-democratic vestiges of the 1980 coup. Instead, they seem poised to reinforce them.”
The current purges are not the first time workers have been subjected to pressure under the AKP, which has frequently blocked strike actions and filed charges against union members for participating in unauthorised demonstrations.
Since the AKP first took office in 2002, rates of union membership in Turkey have dropped from 25.1 per cent to just 6.3 per cent in 2013, the second-lowest rate recorded among OECD countries.
Canan Çalağan, a visual-arts teacher in Ankara and previous executive board member of KESK, was among dozens of union-affiliated workers arrested in 2012 on charges of membership in the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organisation for the PKK. She was jailed for eight months before being released pending trial.
“Two or three months after I was arrested, my husband, who is also a union activist, was arrested too, and my family and friends had to take care of our 12-year-old son because there was no one to look after him. They don’t want to just punish us, but also our entire families,” says Çalağan, who is a member of the KESK affiliate Eğitim Sen, the Education and Science Workers’ Union.
“The reason given for our arrest was ‘membership in an illegal organisation’ but what they showed as the evidence of this charge was our union activities.”
Mehmet Sıddık Akın, a healthcare technician and SES member in Ankara, was also among the union activists jailed in 2012. And like Çalağan and her husband, he was dismissed from his job under a government decree issued 29 October.
“I have two children in school, a daughter with a heart condition and a son studying for his entrance exam. My wife has started taking antidepressants because of our situation,” Akın says. “We’re getting some financial help from the union and our friends, but they are all low-wage workers like us and can’t sustain this solidarity forever.”
Still, Akın says, “I never lose hope. I know we didn’t do anything wrong and there is no other way but to fight.”