ISTANBUL // After years of presiding over an unprecedented economic boom, the Turkish government is faced with the first serious case of labour unrest since it came to power in 2002. Hundreds of workers who were dismissed after the privatisation of the former state-run alcohol and tobacco producer Tekel have gone on hunger strike to demand concessions from the government, and their protest has struck a nerve with the public one year before the next general elections are due. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, is meeting trade union officials today in an effort to defuse the crisis.
"The workers have torn down the mask" of the government, a headline in the Cumhuriyet newspaper said this week. Despite the arcane details of the Tekel controversy and the fact that numerous other groups such as pharmacists, doctors and state employees also have clashed with the government, the Tekel workers have succeeded in unifying protests against what critics say are Ankara's neoliberal policies. "For the first time in a long time, we are seeing a resistance that can count on a broad support in society," wrote Oral Calislar, a columnist for the Radikal newspaper.
Almost two months ago, the former Tekel workers set up camp in front of the Ankara headquarters of the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions, or Turk-Is, the biggest trade union group in the country. They braved snow and temperatures often far below freezing in an effort to force the government to give in to their demands. Reports about the workers' lives in their camp have been making headlines in Turkey for weeks. Last week, some of them started their second hunger strike since their protest began. Nearly 20 workers have been hospitalised since Friday, and eight had to break off the hunger strike because of serious health risks, Turkish media reported.
The row between the workers and the government centres on the status of former employees of privatised state enterprises. When the tobacco producing arm of Tekel was sold to British American Tobacco two years ago, the government offered workers dismissed by the company a temporary status as state employees, known as 4-C after the paragraph in a law that defines the status. But the workers say a 4-C status would mean severe pay cuts and a loss of much of their benefits and are seeking better terms.
Although their demands concern only about 10,000 workers in a workforce of 25 million people, the Tekel case has become a rallying point for Turkey's trade union movement against a government they say is not interested in workers' rights and primarily concerned with selling off state enterprises to fill budget holes. In a move not seen for decades, members of five trade unions last week staged a one-day strike in support of the Tekel workers. Some commentators called the action the first general strike in Turkey in 20 years. Support came from all corners of the country. At 5,173 metres, a team of mountain climbers on Mount Ararat on the eastern border with Armenia unrolled a sign that read: "If the Tekel workers can brave the cold, so can we."
With unemployment standing at 13 per cent because of the global economic crisis, job creation and job security have priority for voters one year before parliamentary elections, polls show. According to one poll released last month, more than half of voters think the Erdogan government has failed on the economic front. After growing steadily since 2002, the Turkish economy contracted by 8.4 per cent in the first nine months of last year.
Mr Erdogan has said the protesting workers are a minority as hundreds of other former Tekel employees had accepted re-employment under 4-C and thousands more had opted to resign and take state compensation payments averaging 40,000 lira (Dh97,000). The prime minister has hinted that police might intervene if the workers do not end their protest until the end of the month. With the stakes being so high, tempers have flared. Hayati Yazici, a minister from Mr Erdogan's cabinet, caused a storm of protest when he said the hunger strike was the work of the devil and that provocateurs from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a Kurdish rebel group fighting against Ankara, may have manipulated the workers. Police in Ankara say that opposition groups had illegally used municipal vehicles to transport food for the workers.
Critics say the row has thrown a spotlight on the government's failure to strengthen trade union rights in line with Turkey's EU membership bid. Since the last military coup in 1980, trade union rights in Turkey have been severely restricted, and the Erdogan government is accused of doing nothing to change that despite demands by the EU. "If we want a Turkey that is more democratic and egalitarian and where workers do not have to go on hunger strike to earn their bread, we have to support the Tekel workers' strike," Riza Turmen, a columnist and former judge at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, wrote in the Milliyet newspaper.
A first meeting between Mr Erdogan and trade union officials last month ended without a breakthrough. Now the prime minister said he is ready to receive a delegation from Turk-Is for a second round of talks. Union officials have also asked for a meeting with Mehmet Ali Sahin, the parliamentary speaker, who is acting head of state as Abdullah Gul, the president, is currently on a foreign visit. firstname.lastname@example.org