Turkey: 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.”

2014 was especially deadly for workers. In May, more than 300 workers died in Turkey’s worst-ever industrial accident at a mine in Soma. In September, 10 construction workers fell to their deaths in Istanbul, and in October, 18 workers died after becoming trapped in a mine in the southern town of Ermenek.

Countless other workplace deaths occurred around the country.

The bad news has continued into the new year with at least eight workers killed in the first two weeks of 2015.

The reasons for such high fatality rates are numerous, but chief amongst them are government policies that break the power of independent unions and enable the growth of the “Republic of Subcontractors” with work being increasingly assigned to underpaid, overworked contractor labourers whose employers are subject to few regulatory checks in their frenetic rush for profit.

But while the gross negligence that killed 301 miners in Soma 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 in Istanbul is a case in point.

On 6 December 2014, hospital administrators fired 94 workers – having previously given marching orders to four hospital workers who started a unionisation drive to improve difficult working conditions.

“Who can survive on 900 Turkish lira (€330) a month?” asked one worker, Ayhan İren, a cleaner and assistant in the emergency ward.

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

Another, İnan Haspolat, was forced to moonlight as a taxi driver after his shift as an orderly at the hospital; the hard reality of simple arithmetic meant that he was only able to sleep two hours a day.

“We came to the point of choking. With our last ounce of strength and our last breath, we decided to unionise,” said Şehriban Kaya, who has worked in the hospital’s kitchen for 12 years.

“For an honorable life and to meet our basic needs, we became union members.”


Nuclear option

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 lira, approximately €75, for those that would renounce their membership) in an effort to stem the tide of unionisation 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 6 December.

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.

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 amidst song and solidarity despite a bitterly cold Istanbul 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, while adding that the firings had nothing to do with the workers’ union drive.

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, a cleaner who had worked 15 years at the hospital.

“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.”