In Tuzla, we don’t work with wool

The shipbuilding business is growing rapidly in Turkey. Especially in Tuzla, south of istanbul, it’s powering ahead. Unfortunately the number of fatal accidents is also on the rise. The employers say: “Accidents are inevitable in this industry. Here in Tuzla we’re not working with wool.”

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After her husband died, nobody from his work-place came to offer her condolences. Not the subcontractor, not the company that hired the subcontractor. So she went to the docks herself to arrange a meeting with her husband’s bosses. Every day for a week. But apparently she got on their nerves: again and again she was sent away. She shouldn’t make trouble, she was told.
The story of the widow of a late dock worker was mentioned in a recent report drawn up on the initiative of Limter-Iş, a small union under the umbrella of the big labour organisation DISK. The region’s economic growth is matched by the growth in the number of accidents and deaths among workers. Especially since the turn of the century, the shipping industry has developed at a tempestuous pace. New worldwide regulations on the safety of ships increased the demand for ships, and Turkey managed to win a share of the market due to relatively cheap labour costs and advanced technology.
Ever since then accidents are on the rise and more deaths are being mourned: in 2001, one worker died, in 2005 the number rose to eight and in the first months of 2008 there were already 17 deaths. Most common causes of death: explosions, electrocutions, and falling from great heights. Cem Dinç, leader of the small but energetic union Limter-Iş says: “In the future we can expect more deaths caused by chronic diseases related to working in the shipping industry. The first victim of cancer clearly caused by the poisonous dust breathed in at work, has already been identified.”

Losing your balance

Limter-Iş  (‘lim’ from liman (harbour), ‘ter’ from tersane (dock), and ‘iş’ meaning ‘work’) on the 16th of June organised the second one-day strike this year. At the site there was a big turn-out of students and members of all sorts of organisations and foundations gathered together around a small podium. They came to support the workers of Tuzla. To find striking workers, you need to search a bit. They are not in front of the podium, they are seldom among the laughing men dancing in a circle, but rather the ones who stand off to the side and don’t draw attention. Like Cumali Tursan, Mehmet Ilashas and Insan Santo. They agree to talk. The deaths make it into the newspaper, they say, but these deaths don’t happen just like that. There is, says Mehmet Ilashas, a series of bad work practices  leading up to them. “If you work for ten hours”, he says as an example, “with hardly a break, you get tired, you concentrate less, and the chance of you losing your balance when you are working up high increases. If you are not experienced in this line of work and are also not educated, you don’t always see the benefit of safety gloves or dust masks. Especially when the boss hands them out one day and doesn’t hand them out the next. For that reason, accidents more easily lead to injuries.”

But the real problem, the men agree, is the system of subcontractors. Five levels are not unusual, and none of the contractors, let alone the original customer, feels responsible for safety. But union leader Dinc adds that a lot of workers don’t want to abolish the system. “They see that the lowest workers get the worst of it and that the subcontractors make good money. So they think: if the system is this bad, the thing to do is to get ahead. The biggest dream of many workers is to become o subcontractor themselves.”
Which is not that unrealistic.  A man who works in Tuzla for a few years can earn more money and get certificates for certain skills. Then he does some networking, and gets in touch with a subcontractor and asks if he can take over a few jobs. Dinç: “Often you see groups of people from certain cities on the northern coast, from the south or southeast that work for one subcontractor. In that way, whole parts of villages come to Tuzla to work. There’s enough work, and it pays better then most of the work they can find in their own region, if there is any work at all.” Tuzla has about 40,000 workers.  A shipworker starts on about 30 lira (about 17 euros) for a 10 hour day (sometimes more), multiplied by thirty days a month (no, no days off), which makes 900 lira a month. That’s twice the minimum wage.

Poorer parts of the country

The workers who decided to walk off the job on that Monday in June have all been working in Tuzla for years. They have certificates, they are insured for most of the hours they work and if they get fired for joining the strike, it’s easy to find another job at another dock. They can understand why many of their colleagues decided not to strike. Cumali Tursan: “If you work for a subcontractor and don’t show up, you can lose your job and then it’s not easy to find something else. But in any case, workers’ rights are just not uppermost in their minds. They come from poorer parts of the country to earn good money for a few months and then return home again. The working and living conditions are bad, but what else can they do?”

Despite the low participation, the strike got a lot of media attention. In the same week, there was a previously planned meeting between employers and unions to find solutions. But that didn’t lead to any concrete agreements. More disappointing still, around that time one of the employers said it’s logical that in Tuzla every now and then somebody dies:  “In Tuzla, we don’t work with wool, but with steel.”
In the meantime, in the first week of July the hundredth death was recorded. The man fell, was taken to hospital but appeared to be uninjured. A few hours later he died, probably from undiagnosed internal injuries.

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